English Patient, The (1996)
Release Date: December 6th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Anthony Minghella Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Jurgen Prochnow, Kevin Whately, Torri Higginson
woon. I’ll catch you.” This is epically romantic stuff, with a welcome dose of modernism mixed up in an intriguing mystery, full of aircraft sweeping over scenic landscapes as if in a ballet, and maddeningly heartbreaking imagery of love and loss. It would be criminal not to mention the cinematography, capturing the stunning locations – especially the golden dunes of Africa – and the use of the end of WWII as a backdrop for tragedy, influence, and tension; along with the stirring music by Gabriel Yared that makes the moving story just that much more poignant. It’s no wonder “The English Patient” went on to win nine Academy Awards including Best Picture.
A plane crashes over the infinite sand ridges of the Sahara, carrying two passengers; elsewhere, Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) learns of the death of her boyfriend. Suddenly it’s 1944 in Italy, and Hana is caring for the lone airplane wreck survivor, a man burned beyond recognition and suffering from amnesia. He’s believed to be English, but doesn’t offer up many details. The war is over, but not literally everywhere (such as the German’s remaining booby traps scattered around the city), so Hana risks her life when she insists upon staying behind to care for the disfigured patient, who is so near death that he can no longer travel with her military unit. The duo takes residence in an abandoned Italian monastery, where the mysterious pilot begins to regain his memories.
The film flashes back to before the war, revealing that he was a mapmaker working on the Sahara Desert. His name is Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), and although he’s rusty at social graces, he immediately has an eye for Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), an elegant woman married to British pilot Geoffrey (Colin Firth), also a member of the desert expedition team, the International Sand Club. When Geoffrey has to fly back to Cairo for a week, his wife stays behind, creating an opportunity for Laszlo to timidly and slowly romance her. A sandstorm buries their car in the dunes, prompting leader Madox (Julian Wadham) to disappear in search of them, allowing even more time for bonding – most coyly amusing when Almasy rejects a few miniature paintings for his book (Herodotus’ writings, a diary of sorts that he keeps with him) from Katharine, only to realize later how much it meant to her to have him accept them.
Back in the present, neighbor David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) stops by the monastery to check on Hana. He’s off-putting and addicted to morphine, but familiarly Canadian, previously working as a spy and thief for the Allies. He too harbors a secret, somehow knowing who the English patient might be, eerily connected by the fact that his thumbs were removed via torture in Tobruk. A bomb-diffusing squad of soldiers also arrives at Hana’s location, including Leftenant Kip (Naveen Andrews), charged with clearing up the landmines from the roads. As the English patient continues to reveal details about his past (relentlessly provoked by Caravaggio), Kip and Hana begin to fall in love.
Unlike many classic stories, where the lovers know they’re in love but struggle to be together, “The English Patient” finds its couple occasionally at war, unsure of their feelings and the possibilities of their romance and its appropriateness in the face of their colleagues. But there is, complexly enough, more than one romance afoot, as Hana not only falls in love with the ideas she believes about her charge (at certain times, the scenes overlap, showing Katharine reciting a story while Hana reads from the same book), but also becomes interested in Kip, who knows a thing or two about orchestrating romantic encounters.
One of the major themes of the production is identification versus association: the lack thereof, the inability to remember, the necessity when choosing allegiances, and the significance during shifting political climates. Correspondingly, the ideas of consequences and connections play an important role – fueling Caravaggio during his vendetta, appearing through Laszlo’s remembrance, and manifesting during the dispensing of guilt and remorse. Like “Doctor Zhivago,” there’s an impressively majestic, wholly cinematic journey, too – not through the icy landscapes of Russia but through the mercilessly dry sediments of Egypt. While some may curse the lengthy running time, the characters and events are so monumental and affecting that “The English Patient” is guaranteed to remain one of the most unforgettable projects of the ‘90s – as well as one of the finest romantic dramas of all time.
– Mike Massie