Very few films have been made in the past twenty years to rival the scale of ‘The English Patient’. The genre was seen as dead and antiquated, and I think that ‘The English Patient’ got quite a lot of undeserved criticism because of it.
The source of this was a novel by Ondaatje and tells the story of Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes). The film is in flashback, with one half showing the burned and dying Fiennes known as the English patient (although he is in fact Hungarian) being cared for in Italy in the last years of the Second World War by a Canadian nurse, Hanna, played by the joyous Juliette Binoche. He had a poor memory of his life, but can remember more recent events, and recounts his obsession and love after with an English married woman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, whom he met in the early years of the war in North Africa. His memory is helped by the arrival of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a spy who remembers the role that the Count played a during this period.
If there is one word that I would use to describe this film, it is lavish. The cinematography is stunning: sweeping desert scenery, the wild Italian house where the Count is nursed, the bustling and exotic cities, and then conversely the suspense filled intense love scenes, most beautifully between Binoche and her love interest Kip (Naveen Andrews) when he takes her flying around a church. Coupled with the excellent story, the film was always going to have potential.
The acting is excellent. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, him as the mysterious brooding offhand male and her as the proper English lady who has a deep passion, have wonderful chemistry when on screen together, but for me, the film belongs to Binoche. A less glamorous and more challenging role than her co-stars, she is simply delightful as the caring nurse, and the screen just lights up whenever she is on it.
The film draws on themes of love, war, trust but perhaps most importantly identity, as all characters struggle to find out who they are, how they should behave and what they want in this changing war time period.
Admittedly the film is not fast paced and not full of action, but for those who give it the time and want to get lost in a celluloid world of pure old-fashioned romance and stunning vistas, then they will be firmly rewarded. In years to come, this will be heralded as a romantic epic to content with ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’.
One final word on the contest this year between ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Fargo’. I am torn, and I think that this would have been one of the hardest years to choose a winner as both films are excellent but entirely different, but if forced to make a choice, I would select ‘Fargo’ for best picture and ‘The English Patient’ for Minghella’s direction.