Based on Michael Ondaatje’s sweeping WWII novel, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) is a sumptuously mounted historical epic. At its center are a pair of love stories, one romantically flawed, the other utterly obsessive and tragic. The lover's triangle formula is as old as movies itself. But unlike many, The English Patient avoids practically every pitfall known to the genre, episodically driven to tell a good story. Like David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient is told primarily through a series of integrated flashbacks.
Minghella's screenplay wastes no time in setting up the premise. A young French-Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche) is left behind in an abandoned Italian monastery to tend to a mysterious burn victim, Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes). With more than eighty percent of his flesh charred, Almásy is dying. It is a certainty, though perhaps one Hana is not yet ready, willing or able to accept. Almásy has faked amnesia to avoid prosecution from the Allied Forces. Known to Hana only as 'the English patient', Almásy is actually a Hungarian geographer who was making maps of the Sahara Desert when he became romantically involved with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
As the hours turn into days, Hana befriends Almásy and he gradually begins to open up to her about his remembrances during the war. Almásy once organized the Royal Geographic Society dig in Egypt and Libya, funded by Katherine and her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth). During long stretches when Geoffrey was away on business Almásy's growing desire for Katherine became an all-consuming obsession. Although Katherine was initially faithful to Geoffrey, she eventually relented to Almásy's temptation and their passionate affair began. But it was doomed to burn itself out. Overwrought with guilt, Katherine ends the affair. But Geoffrey has already found the lovers out. Thus, when Katherine informs him that they must fly their biplane out to some desert cave to collect Almásy at the dig, Geoffrey instead seizes the opportunity to crash land his plane into Almásy, thereby killing them all. Unhappy chance that only Geoffrey is killed in the crash.
Katherine has survived but will bleed to death unless Almásy can make it into town on foot to get help. Leaving Katherine in the cave where she will ultimately perish, Almásy is taken prisoner by the Allies who refuse to listen to his pleas about Katherine. Almásy escapes and steals a plane. But he arrives too late to save the woman he loves. As a grief stricken Almásy flies home his plane is downed by the Nazis, the fire from its engine engulfing him. Hana and Almásy's exploration of these recent events is interrupted with the arrival of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) - a Canadian intelligence operative who lost both his thumbs and was severely tortured by the Nazis because of what he has perceived as Almásy's betrayal. At the same time Hana becomes involved with Sikh bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews), an infatuation that gradually blossoms into a more meaningful love. Having acquitted himself of his past regrets, Almásy instructs Hana to administer a lethal dose of morphine that will finally put him out of his misery.
Winner of nine Academy Awards The English Patient retains its sweeping arch of passionate storytelling. Minghella’s direction, his use of long takes and static master shots, fleetingly conjures to mind the visionary genius of David Lean – if not in spirit, then certainly in both its tone and production values. The desert sequences, particularly the sand storm, are thrilling. But, it must be said that the teaming of Fiennes and Thomas as the ravenous lovers is problematic at best.
Whether Fiennes prowess as an actor has been irreversibly tainted by his brilliant performance as the maniacal villain in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), or it is simply a matter of miscasting, in both physical stature and outward demeanor Fiennes is quite unacceptable as the Count. Fiennes' insolence is too shifty-eyed, his sullen mood too brooding - too insane to be misconstrued as mere passionate obsession. Almost from the moment we meet the Count, Fiennes makes him a wholly unsympathetic and largely unlikeable character. As for Kristin Scott Thomas, her Katherine is too remote, too aloof and seemingly too proper and refined to succumb to such devious charms. Hence, her willing abandonment of propriety in general and fidelity to her marriage in particular seems even more mean-spirited than Almásy's driven need to possess her.
The film has much better luck with Juliette Binoche's tender and meaningful take on Hana. Hana's burgeoning romance with Kip is both tender, yet fraught with a worrisome denial, that she is somehow a jinx to those she loves the most. Binoche is effortless in conveying the depth of these hidden desires and anxieties, intermingling just beneath her outward facade as a compassionate caregiver. John Seale's cinematography captures the stoic isolationism of the desert sands and the bustling chaos of a thriving culture caught between the trials and tribulations of an epic war. Gabriel Yared's score creates a haunting overlay that draws out the emotional center of the film and keeps it alive and ever present in our minds.
Miramax/Alliance Home Video's newly remastered Blu-ray rectifies the absolute travesty of Alliance Canada Home Video's initial hi-def release of The English Patient. This time around we get a progressive, dual layer 1080p transfer and it's about time! It should be noted that Miramax's Blu-ray veers radically away from previous home video incarnations in its reproduction of color. Whereas all previous versions on DVD and Blu-ray maintained a relatively cool to medium register of colors, with piercing blue skies and very bright whites, this new Blu-ray adopts a very warm almost copper tone/sepia hue. It's been too long for me to recall what the actual theatrical look of the film was. Suffice it to say, I don't remember the image looking quite this sun burnt. Nevertheless, fine details take a quantum leap forward on this disc. Contrasts are very nicely balanced with deep blacks and very solid, although yellowish, whites.
The audio has been remastered Tru-DTS 7.1 and is very aggressive. Dialogue sounds quite natural. The sand storm sequence will rock your speakers. Extras are all imports from Miramax's extensive 2 disc DVD from 2000 and include a very comprehensive commentary by writer-director Anthony Minghella, producer Saul Zaentz and author, Michael Ondaatje. The CBC’s documentary on the making of the film is somewhat of a disappointment, relying heavily on trailer junkets and very little but sound bytes from cast and crew. There are also featurettes on scoring the film, writing the film, Minghella's career and Ondaatje's writing style, plus a theatrical trailer to sift through when time permits. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)