Film Review: The English Patient

The poster for The English Patient. Quite the tagline, “In love, there are no boundaries.” If this were a more sinister film, that tagline would still apply.

When I was about 15, based on the recommendation of my uncle, I watched 1996’s The English Patient. It’s his favorite film of all time, so I was curious, of course. And at that time, I was (and still am) a fan of Ralph Fiennes’ work. Aside from being incredible as a Nazi in 1993’s Schindler’s List, I actually fell in love with him because of 2002’s Maid in Manhattan. Yeah, I said it! I grew up with a twin sister and mother who loved it, and I will die on the hill that Maid in Manhattan is a good movie, made all the better by him and a scene in particular of his I still think about to this day (I’ll save that for a different post). Then Fiennes became Voldemort for the Harry Potter film series adaptation, so again, a marriage made in heaven for me.

But, unfortunately, The English Patient was a lot like my first experience trying to read 2003’s The Da Vinci Code. I wasn’t ready for either at the time I tried to engage with them. I was too young, and admittedly, in the case of The English Patient, I underestimated how difficult it would be to watch a near three hour film late at night. I sleep-watched it, essentially. The bright side of that, however, is that I don’t remember the film at all. So I’m going into it today with fresh eyeballs and now, being much older, I’m excited to revisit the film and give it a proper appraisal. After all, it’s not merely my uncle’s favorite film, but it is also an Academy Award-winning film on multiple levels, including Best Picture. I’m a geek for the Academy, and not properly viewing The English Patient is a gap in that geekdom.

Production Notes

With all of that preamble out of the way, let’s get into my usual behind-the-scenes production notes. In the director’s chair is Anthony Minghella, who was only in his early 40s at the time of the film, and sadly, died at the young age of 54 in 2008. The only other film of Minghella’s I’ve seen is 2003’s Cold Mountain, a rather forgotten film given it’s huge box office prowess ($95 million for a period piece war film!) and critical acclaim. And no, I have not actually seen his 1999 film, as a follow-up to The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I have seen the 2008 film he was a co-producer on and received a posthumous nomination for Best Picture, The Reader. That’s one of my all-time favorite films and books. Minghella seems to have a thing for turning books into films.

Minghella won Best Director at the 69th Academy Awards for The English Patient, and was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (spoiler!). So as I spoiled five words previous, Minghella also wrote the script for this, and would also receive another nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Talented Mr. Ripley.

That’s worth pointing out, then, that the film is based on a 1992 book of the same name by Michael Ondaatje. I have not read the book, but it won the Booker Prize that year and obviously was made into an Academy Award-winning film, so that says a lot.

Saul Zaentz is the producer on the film, and also sadly passed away in 2014. Zaentz is notable because he won Best Picture for films he produced three times: The English Patient, but also 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of my all-time favorite films based on one of my all-time favorite books, and 1984’s Amadeus, which I haven’t seen. But producing three critically acclaimed films in three decades is quite the achievement for anyone. He also produced the most underrated and forgotten Harrison Ford film, 1986’s The Mosquito Coast. I saw someone recently on Twitter say Ford can’t act; they haven’t seen that film then, but I digress.

Zaentz is the one we perhaps most have to thank for the critical success of The English Patient. He bought the rights to the (then unpublished) novel and worked with Ondaatje on it. Zaentz resisted the pressure to make the film more acceptable to mainstream audiences by casting Demi Moore. Which, I’m not here to knock Demi Moore, as I actually think she’s a darn fine actress, but Zaentz went with Kristin Scott Thomas (more on her in a moment). Even Bruce Willis was initially offered the role of Caravaggio. Between him and Moore, that would have taken me completely out of the movie, and again, I love both of them.

“They all said, ‘We love it, we love it, we love it,’ that they wanted to make great movies just like ‘The English Patient,’ that are serious and intelligent,” Mr. Zaentz recalled. “But then they’d look at you and say, ‘Could we cast Demi Moore in the role?’ They were all afraid of it.”

The New york times in 2014

Overall, aside from Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, for production notes, the film would be nominated by the Academy for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing (apparently a first for a digitally edited film), Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound. Overall, the film won nine of 12 categories it was nominated for, including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound. I’ll get to the three in-front-of-the-camera categories and one win in the next section.

Another Harry Potter connection is that John Seale, the winning award-winning cinematographer, also did Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, an absolutely stunning and magical (puns!) film to look at. He also did Cold Mountain, and another stunning film, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which I recently recommended, and one of those reasons is the cinematography. Apparently, that was Seale’s final film, so what a way to go out. Suffice it to say, Seale was great at what he did.

In Front of the Camera Notes

As teased, Ralph Fiennes is in the lead role here as Almásy, which is a role based on a real-life person, László Almásy, who was a Hungarian aristocrat, and served during WWI when his plane was shot down. Since I already mentioned some of my favorite movies with Fiennes in the lead, I’ll mention perhaps an underrated one to recommend: 2005’s The Constant Gardener. Fiennes was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy for his role, but lost out to Geoffrey Rush’s performance as David Helfgott.

Juliette Binoche plays Hana. I became familiar with Binoche’s work through her English-language debut film (she’s French) 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is a tour-de-force performance from her I highly recommend. Oh, and as an aside, it also has my all-time favorite actor Daniel Day-Lewis. So yeah, go watch that. I’m not familiar with anything else she’s done besides 2014’s Godzilla, and well, the less we think about that film, the better. Binoche won for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards.

Willem Dafoe plays Caravaggio, and what is there to say about Dafoe? He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation. Most people probably know of him as the villain in 2002’s Spider-Man, which he did great with, but I think of him most from 2009’s Antichrist (fair warning on that being a difficult-to-watch film) and most recently, 2019’s The Lighthouse, which might be his best role yet. It’s a shame he didn’t get any love for it by the Academy.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Katharine Clifton, and honestly, I most associate her name with this film, despite not remembering much else about it. She was good as Clementine Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour. But that’s about all I know about her. She was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy, but lost to Frances McDormand’s performance as Marge Gunderson in Fargo.

What a cast this is, as I’m only now getting to Colin Firth, who plays Geoffrey Clifton. Firth rightly won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for 2010’s The King’s Speech for his role as King George VI. Among normies (casual film-goers), they probably most know him for 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service in which he was fantastic.

Again, what a cast that is. I’m not familiar with the rest of the listed cast, but the ones mentioned here are top shelf. Going through that is making me even more excited to see the film.

The synopsis doesn’t tell us much from Amazon Prime, “The Best Picture Oscar-winning WWII epic about a dying Hungarian mapmaker whose story is revealed to a compassionate Italian nurse.” But, I always appreciate short synopses.

As I mentioned, the run time here is nearly three hours at two hours and 41 minutes. That seems par for the course for films in the “epic” genre.

After nearly 1,400 words, let’s dive into the film, shall we?

Let’s Watch

Okay, I have to say it since both have burned faces! Having recently watched nine Nightmare on Elm Street films in recent weeks, the make-up effects for Almásy look much better than virtually all of the make-up effects for Freddy Krueger. He legitimately looks like a burn victim.

The great effects continue, this time on the special effects front. An envoy of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps is traversing through Italy in 1944 with Hana, a nurse, and Almásy. The truck at the front of the line is blown up by a land mine, and you can even see a body flying from the wreckage. I would assume that’s a practical effect and not CGI, but I don’t know for sure. Either way, it looks great.

You just gotta love Binoche. She chews up every scene she’s in (and I mean in the good way), even when there’s no dialogue, and I’m saying that 20 minutes in. She’s a presence. I mean, I could watch her play hopscotch for three hours, let’s be honest.

“He needn’t disturb you,” Hana says to Almásy.

“He can’t. I’m already disturbed,” Almásy replies.

The “he” here is Caravaggio, who is a Canadian Intelligence Corps operative and who has come to the monastery to join the two. In the course of that present interaction at the monastery as Almásy begins to remember bits and pieces of who he is, we get flashbacks to those scenes of him as his pre-burned dashing self with a surveying and mapping expedition party in Egypt, where he meets Katharine, who is married to Geoffrey. Despite this, the chemistry between Almásy and Katharine is palpable from the start.

Another beautiful line from Hana is when Caravaggio asks her if she’s in love with Almásy and thinks him a saint because of the way he looks, and she responds that she’s in love with ghosts, and so is Almásy.

But saint or devil? Because the intrigue is that Caravaggio seems to think Almásy helped, or led, the Germans to torturing his thumbs off. “I’m one of his ghosts, and he wouldn’t even know it,” Caravaggio says.

It’s also worth pointing out that despite some of the weightier themes and elements here, there’s some funny lines. For example, when Kip (played by Naveen Andrews), a Sikh sapper (like an engineer), comes to the monastery worried about landmines the Germans planted, and warns Hana off of the piano, she remarks, “Then maybe you’re safe as long as you only play Bach. He’s German.” And burned Almásy has a certain deadpan dark humor levity to him (“condensed milk, one of the truly great inventions!”), given he knows he’s dying. It makes for a nice juxtaposition to his pre-burned more serious, stoic self.

That chemistry I mentioned between Almásy and Katharine comes to bear again when there is a sandstorm in the nighttime desert (a scene both beautiful and horrific from Seale), and to escape the elements, they huddle together in a jeep. Nothing sensual actually happens — at most, he lightly touches her hair, as he regales her with mythical stories about other terrible winds — but it’s a sensual scene nonetheless because of all the unspoken tension and chemistry between the two.

“New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.” – Almásy, in a note he scribbled into his notebook.

That’s Almásy describing his love with Katharine, which as he says, smashes everything and is chaotic. Unpredictable. Sort of like those sandstorms. When the unspoken sensuality turns into full blown fiery passion between the two, it feels like that. The madness of a sandstorm caught in a bottle.

Hmm, the intrigue builds as we learn that Geoffrey and Caravaggio know each other, so that gets us closer to, did Almásy help the Germans who tortured the latter? The idea here, as it’s made clear later by Madox (played by Julian Wadham) is that “if you own the desert, you own North Africa.” That is, with war breaking out, if the Germans can understand the layout of North Africa, then they can have a strategic advantage against Britain and the other allies. It seems people, like Caravaggio, think Almásy helped the Germans by betraying Madox and showing them the maps.

Poor Geoffrey. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, as he sits in that dang car for a day and a half, initially hoping to surprise Katharine on their anniversary, but she’s off with Almásy. She ends up breaking it off though, worried Geoffrey will find out (even though it seems he already has, or at least he suspects she’s stepping out on him, not necessarily who the new suitor is).

Remember the madness I talked about, bottled up? It seems to have affected Almásy. That is, Katharine breaking it off. His stoic, serious, nose-in-his-work self has … become a bit unhinged, shall we say, at a fancy dinner for the “international sand club.” He starts turning into a jealous madman, too. It’s hard to watch and see him like that.

“Dance with me,” he says.

“No,” she responds.

Devastating.

On the other hand, Kip and Hana’s budding relationship is the complete opposite. Instead of chaotic energy, it’s subtle and sweet. Instead of madness, it’s tender. And it’s more wondrous rather than whimsical, playful rather than lustful, airy rather than intense.

But the throughline is that both Hana and Katharine go into it knowing it’s inevitably doomed, perhaps? Because Hana’s fate has been creating ghosts (and Kip works with landmines, after all!), and well, Katharine is married.

Is there a better metaphor than Americans rumbling through with flags-waving and tanks as Kip tries to defuse a bomb, putting him in extra danger? Granted, he thankfully makes it out alive, and we get the jubilation of WAR IS OVER. But still. Whew. Which then brings us a beautiful scene of Hana, Kip and the others taking Almásy in the rain, something he asked for earlier in the film.

Holy hell that plane crash toward the end of the film. Geoffrey and Katharine are in the plane together coming to Cairo to pick up Almásy, ostensibly, when Geoffrey either nosedives on purpose to kill them both, or was aiming to Almásy and it was the same outcome? Either way, what an impressive looking special effect, which I do believe is a practical special effect (and that’s why it looks so good). That makes the Geoffrey character all the more tragic.

What a beautiful scene when Almásy has her in his arms in the desert wrapped in a white cloth and the soaring score kicks in. Then a lovely exchange ensues:

“You’re wearing the thimble,” Almásy says.

“Of course, you idiot. I always wear it. I’ve always worn it. I’ve always loved you,” Katharine responds.

Tears and chills. Whew. Incidentally, they end up back at the Cave of Swimmers where they originally fell in love.

Imagine walking three days in the desert for your love and then having to deal with that schmuck asking your name and laughing at you. COME ON MAN. God, that’s frustrating, and exemplifies what Madox was saying earlier about how stupid nationalities and the differences in religions and ethnicity and the stupidity of war itself all is. All of this sidetracking because the British think Almásy is a German. Gah.

Even after all of that hell, Almásy still has some fight left in him! Goodness. “In love, there are no boundaries,” is damn right.

As it turns out, Almásy, in a last desperation bid to save Katharine, did give the Germans the maps. Whoa. With Madox’s English plane and German gasoline.

“Isn’t that funny? After all that, I became English,” Almásy says.

If you’re not tearing up at Almásy carrying Katharine’s body out of the cave (which she wrote in a last letter that she knew he’d come back to do), then you’re dead inside.

Also, the beauty of that tagline/theme of “no boundaries” is that it’s more than what it first seems. Again, the arbitrariness of boundaries on a map that we then fight and die over, while real love with no boundaries becomes the casualty to the first. And for it to be particularly focused on a mapmaker — a man who draws boundaries — makes it all the more poignant. A mapmaker who learned to not care about his maps.

There’s another theme to it, too, based on what Katharine said, “We are the real countries. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.” Throughout the film, aside from the obviousness of two bodies merging without care of boundaries in Katharine and Almásy, there’s also the fact that Almásy draws figurative lines (and then later real markings) on Katharine’s body, and wants to know what that hollow at her throat is called. He later learns it’s the suprasternal notch. The point of which, I think, is that with our lovers, we become fixated on the little things; it’s the little things that are the trappings of love. Additionally, there’s something to the burned version of Almásy. That the burns have, in essence, rendered him without boundaries (while at the same time giving him all knew boundaries in the form of burn marks), without a nationality (they assume because he speaks English he’s English), and without a name. It’s almost as if stripped of everything, we’re just humans. Just humans.

Post-Watch Thoughts

Well, Zaentz sticking to his guns about casting Thomas seemed to pay off, literally. On a budget of about $31 million, which for a sweeping film of this nature isn’t that much, the film made more than twice its budget domestically with a $78.7 million haul, and an even more impressive $153.3 million haul overseas, for a total of $232 million globally. For a near three hour film about love in the desert with a WWII backdrop and for what some call may derisively refer to as “Oscar bait,” that’s impressive commercial success.

As I’ve already mentioned, the critical success was all there at the Academy Awards. The actual critical consensus on Rottentomatoes is a bit more tepid reading, “Though it suffers from excessive length and ambition, director Minghella’s adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel is complex, powerful, and moving.”

I disagree. One of the best compliments you can give a film that’s near three hours and is in the epic genre, is that it doesn’t feel like near three hours, and this didn’t. I think the device of cutting back and forth between pre-burned and burned Almásy, along with the Hana subplot, helps keep the movie moving, but it’s also an engrossing tale. I want to know whether Almásy was a saint or a devil (it’s obviously more nuanced than that), what happened between him and Katharine, and as I mentioned, I’ll watch Hana do anything because she’s engrossing on her own.

The backdrop of WWII and the message I’ve talked about therein (boundaries are stupid and wars over boundaries even stupider), along with a romance plot (I’m a sappy sucker for ’em) is going to pull me in. Add in the sweeping nature of it being an epic — a style and genre of filmmaking we don’t see much anymore, and touches on my soft spot for such classic cinema —, an all-star cast, a beautiful score (listening to it as I type this, and it’s breath-taking), and a beautiful film to look at (those sand dunes though), and you have the makings of a film that meets its ambitions, as far as I am concerned. And honestly, the best part about the film is the script itself, which I’m glad received an Oscar. The dialogue is beautiful without ever feeling hamfisted or on-the-nose. Scripting genuine, believable romance is a difficult feat, and it’s one Minghella certainly pulled off.

To use that word again, it’s a beautiful, complicated, nuanced film, showcasing at once that epicness associated with a Gone with the Wind or Casablanca type film with its sweeping, grandiose desert landscapes, but also the heart-aching closeness of romance (and its dismantling), all of it besieged by war. I also appreciate that interwoven into all of that was the levity I mentioned of dark humor and jokes.

It’s an impressive film for which I’m glad I gave a second viewing. I’m going to need more time than the 15 minutes after the credits rolled to digest everything that happened here, but if you have three hours to kill on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I recommend this film. It will make you think about love, life and the Hollywood of yore. I see this film as much as a love letter to Hollywood, as far as filmmaking goes, as I do it being a love letter to love itself, and the human condition’s need to not be “owned” by anything, boundaries included, as Almásy might say.

What do you think of this film?

7 thoughts

  1. Glad you enjoyed the film. I don’t really have anything to add, you covered everything. I was waiting for you to mention the thimble scene, my favorite. I cry every time. Also, loved the sandstorm/winds scene. His stories about winds were wonderful. A little surprised you didn’t mention him knocking over the morphine bottles, indicating he was ready to die. Such a powerful scene. I just woke up from a long nap so I can’t totally articulate my thoughts. But this was a stellar review that hit all the marks. Nice work.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And you you haven’t seen The Talented Mr. Ripley? Dear god, rectify this, man. Damon as a twisted, villainous chameleon? Yes, please. Throw in a spoiled Law, a curious and intelligent Hoffman, and Paltrow in one of her more layered roles, and you have a damn fine cast/film.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I was sold on seeing that soon once I realized the same folks behind the scenes here — Minghella, Seale, and Gabriel Yared — are also behind this film. Plus, like you said, another star-studded cast.

        Liked by 1 person

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