The English Patient

 Director: Anthony Minghella

1996

The English Patient Ralph FiennesBy the time I was old enough to watch The English Patient Voldemort had already become part of my life both as a cinemagoer and a reader. I mention this because I find it very strange to see Ralph Fiennes in a different role. And this is a different role. As Count Laszlo de Almasy he’s charismatic while somehow still being cold. However he lights up when he is around Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Fiennes’ disfigurement renders him visually similar to Voldemort further making the separation between the actor and his most famous role difficult (though of course not impossible). Pre-injury there is a rugged handsomeness to Fiennes, and his eyes are just stunning!

The film has two very separate narratives – the one told in Africa before Almasy was horribly disfigured in a fire and the one that unfolds after his accident, at the tail end of WWII. The film is visually sumptuous with breathtaking vistas of the African desert. There is a grand scale and sweeping majesty to The English Patient. “The English Patient‘s scale, its majesty on big screens, and its sense of importance demanded recognition for its artistic and technical achievements.” (864, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Juliette Binoche is selfless as Hana, the young nurse who takes offer the care of the wounded Almasy. She’s extremely capable transforming an abandoned monastery into somewhere of moderate comfort, especially in the war-torn country of Italy.

The flashbacks set in Africa are gorgeous with a rich warm palette, all reds, oranges, yellows and burnt umber tones. The narrative set in Italy has a much cooler palette, more blues and grays. “[…] the production is meticulously artful, repeatedly likened to the style of David Lean, from dreamlike aerial sequences and dramatic sandstorm to sensuous love scenes and enchanting effects – cave paintings examined by torchlight, church frescoes illuminated by a flare.” (864)

Of course the driving narrative is one of an ill-fated romance between Almasy and Mrs Katherine Clifton. There’s an urgency to their first sex scene, tempered by the surprisingly intimate, tender and domestic scene of Almasy repairing the damage he did to her dress and Clifton washing his hair. Willem Dafoe is suitably creepy once more as Caravaggio, a Canadian thief/spy who encountered torture during the war, supposedly at the hands of Almasy, though not directly. He does tortured and slightly crazy so well. The removal of his thumbs under torture is pretty brutal.

I like the way everything interlinks – the characters you encounter in Italy are ones from Almasy’s past in Africa. Or in the case of the bomb disposal unit, led by Naveen Andrews’ Kip, were encountered earlier on in the film.

It’s a slow-moving film moving somewhat leisurely through the pre-war years, war years and finally the time spent in Italy at the very tail end of the war. I have to confess that while I found the visuals and the cinematography stunning I was a bit indifferent to the narrative. Angela Errigo was right when she said that it was “convoluted”. There’s a bittersweet-ness to The English Patient – nobody gets their happy ending, not Almasy and Katherine, not Geoffrey Clifton and his wife Katherine, not Hana and Kip nor Hardy and his local fiancé. Not only does Hana lose Kip but also Almasy who she had also come to love in her own way. “The film has two strong elements to captivate. The story is convoluted but classically, passionately romantic.” (864)

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