Oscar Movie Month: "The English Patient" Review

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Beginning in the 1930's, "The English Patient" tells the story of Count Almásy who is a Hungarian map maker employed by the Royal Geographical Society to chart the vast expanses of the Sahara Desert along with several other prominent explorers. As World War II unfolds, Almásy enters into a world of love, betrayal, and politics that is later revealed in a series of flashbacks while Almásy is on his death bed after being horribly burned in a plane crash.
3.5

Oscar Movie Month: "The English Patient" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 162 minutes
Release Date: November 15, 1996
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Genre: Drama / Romance / War

World War II has inspired many films to include scenes ranging from hardened veterans going over the top to passionate damsels finding their lost love in far-flung Moroccan cities. "The English Patient" owes more to "Casablanca" than "Saving Private Ryan," leaving the battlefield behind to explore the lives and love of a series of intense characters. The result is a skillful blend of romance and drama set behind friendly lines. The intense drama of the film may not appeal to everyone, but it is likely to inspire romance films in its own right.

"The English Patient" is a romance story that revolves around two couples. Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) absconds with his love, a married woman named Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), in a small plane during WWII. The plane is shot down, killing Clifton in the earliest parts of the film and leaving Almasy burned beyond recognition. A Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), cares for Almasy. He becomes known only as "the English patient" to everyone in the impromptu wartime hospital. Hana remains with Almasy after the hospital moves to follow the troops, eventually meeting Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh officer sent to the area to disarm bombs. Drama builds when Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) arrives on the scene to determine if the badly burnt Almasy is the German spy who caused him to be disfigured for thievery.

The acting in "The English Patient" sets the standard for both war movies and romance films. Fiennes gives one of the best performances of his storied career, creating a believable and sympathetic character almost entirely through minor interactions and mental flashbacks. Scott Thomas brings a sense of passion to many of those flashbacks in her role as a married woman with a paramour. Binoche and Dafoe both offer brilliant performances as supporting characters, stealing the scene on more than one key occasion and giving viewers even more emotional attachment to the narrative. Andrews performs admirably, though his role is regularly overshadowed by other members of the cast.

The camera angles and transitions used in "The English Patient," showcase the talent of both the film crew and director Anthony Minghella. Wide overhead shots and intimate close-ups seem to occur effortlessly. Viewers are likely to find themselves leaning in closer to hear a whispered word just as the camera pans or recoiling away from the screen at an unexpected violent outburst. Transitions blend even widely differing scenes into a cohesive whole, mirroring both narrative moments and dramatic tension to great effect. However, the film's lighting is one area where it struggles at times. Beautiful vistas adorn the movie's landscape, but lighting choices may hide many of these elements from all but the most attentive viewers.

"The English Patient" divulges quite a bit from the original novel that inspired the film. Almasy and Clifton's romance takes a much larger role, and this is likely to be a benefit for moviegoers. The dialogue struggles occasionally to keep up with the raw emotion packed into each scene, with many seemingly off-handed phrases seeming downright comical without the tension created during the build-up to support them. The spoken words seem to borrow more heavily from romance novels than films, and this transition is not always perfect. These minor hiccups do not detract noticeably from the film, but moviegoers may find themselves wondering if a particular line was a joke or serious event on more than one occasion.

Minghella's direction is one of the best elements of the entire film. He coaxes the best possible performance out of the actors regardless of the quality of their lines. The film manages to balance captivating moviegoers with new information not found in the novels with still remaining true to the heart of the initial story. The film's pacing is fairly consistent throughout, which may not always deliver the impact that is seemingly desired. Much like "Gone with the Wind" and other period pieces, the focus on pacing is greatly lessened and more emphasis given to the characters' dialogue and dramatic moments.

"The English Patient" delivers exactly what moviegoers should expect from such a stunning cast and a storied director. The emotional moments are full of impact. Viewers are likely to find themselves immersed in the story and holding their breath alongside key characters as it develops. Those looking for more of an action-oriented war film are not likely to enjoy the movie, but the film is sure to find a welcome place on the shelves of drama and romance aficionados.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5