If you are a fan of doomed romance, The English Patient is the film for you. It builds up the romance in flashbacks after you already know that it’s doomed, but you don’t know why, who, or how. It keeps you interested every second wanting to know how the present became the way that it is. Of course, if you have no patience (ha ha! bad pun) for this sort of thing, stay away from this movie, because the emotion and tragedy are the biggest things the film has to offer. I, personally, love these types of stories and loved The English Patient.
Towards the end of the second world war, a French-Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) leaves the rest of the group to take care of a badly-burned man who cannot bear to be moved (Ralph Fiennes). He also has amnesia and is known only as “the English patient” of the title. They hide out in an abandoned Italian monastery and are joined by Caravaggio (Willem Dofoe), a Canadian spy from the patient’s past, and two bomb technicians. As Hana takes care of her patient, we flashback to the tragic love story as well as watch a new one develop.
The patient’s name is actually Almasy, and he is a Hungarian count. Hana reads to him from his book which carries notes and other memorabilia from his adventures and he remembers what happened to him in flashbacks from time to time. Before WWII he was working with this international group of cartographers and other explorers to map out North Africa just out of curiosity. Once the war starts this poses several problems though as England thinks anybody who is not English is some sort of German spy which of course gets Almasy into trouble later. It’s really interesting now that I think about it, because it comes down to his having a foreign name basically, and it’s hardly ever used in the film. I’m sure he says it couple of times but honestly I don’t remember how it is pronounced. I guess that’s to show how little stock he puts in things like this, meaning original nationality and a label such as one’s name determining how they live their life as opposed to their own desires and such.
I’m just going to take a slight detour and say how much Ralph Fiennes actually looks like Voldemort (he played Voldemort, so that’s why I’m saying this) here because his skin is so burned and also his voice is really raspy. I kind of thought that was pretty fantastic because I still remember seeing Quiz Show for the first time and not realizing it was the same guy who played Voldemort until I looked the movie up afterwards, and I have still not gotten over the shock of that fully. Now I have joined the image of attractive ’90s Ralph Fiennes with obscencely-pale-with-no-nose Ralph Fiennes in my mind so it’s a step in the right direction. And just because I’ve started down this path I’ll go ahead and say that his performance was also fantastic, which is pretty much a given with this guy. Ok, Ralph Fiennes fangirling is officially over. (awwww…)
But it’s not really, because this is a tragic love story and he plays the lead so you kind of can’t get away from it. He does fall in love, as promised, with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is married of course (to Geoffrey, played by Colin Firth). That’s not even the biggest problem with their relationship in the end, but in the beginning it definitely is. When they first meet it’s obvious they’re attracted to each other because it’s a movie, he’s the main character, and there are literally no other women in the story (in the flashback portions that is). He knows she’s married so he tries to resist by being a jerk, but of course he doesn’t pull it off completely so sometimes he’s a jerk and sometimes he isn’t. I guess he’s sufficiently polite enough to make sure she continues to get to know him better. Then comes that moment when the husband leaves the group and they are trapped in a car together during a sandstorm which is basically the point of no return in terms of falling into forbidden love. He tells her all of these historical stories and it’s really pretty cute.
Of course, after they get out of this the realization comes that this is not going to work out which was the reason he was trying to be a jerk to her before. They get back to Cairo and Almasy feels the need to remind of her of her name, Mrs. Clifton, which sets up the importance of names idea as well as give us another example of how jerkfaced Almasy can be when he wants to make a point. The sad part is that this really only seems to work on Katherine; I kind of feel like nobody else pays attention to him, and this is especially true towards the end of the flashbacks. They officially begin having an affair, but Katherine still has problems with lying to her husband and says she still loves him as well. Eventually she has to leave Almasy because of fear that her husband will find out about them. Then Almasy becomes a giant jerkface again because he can’t be with her, which is kind of pathetic now that I’m thinking about it but when I was watching the film I just felt really bad for the two of them. There’s this scene where he comes into a dinner with the whole group very drunk which is the most awkward and sad thing ever.
The husband eventually does find out, and that initially brings about the tragedy but that’s definitely not all there is to it. I’m not going to say anymore about it because it’s better to just learn what happens in the way that the film presents it to you. Things are still going on in the present day though, even though it’s not quite as involving from my point of view because I didn’t have as much connection to the characters. Hana believes that anybody she loves automatically gets killed by the war, because that has happened to her more than once during the war. When she starts up a relationship with Kip (one of the bomb technicians, played by Naveen Andrews) she’s afraid that he’s going to die as well. Of course, he gets called out to diffuse bombs because that’s his job so there’s some tension there. I mean, I was hoping he didn’t die of course but I wasn’t too worried about it really.
Another thing that happens in present day is flashbacks from a different point of view. I mentioned that this guy Caravaggio had moved in earlier, he says it was at the request of one of the nurses that Hana knows but you get the feeling that he has ulterior motives, and these exist in the flashbacks. He has a really big grudge against Almasy, and with good reason. “Ask your saint who he is. Ask him who he’s killed.” Which kind of had me worried, but not too much because just based on how the story was going I felt that Almasy was not a truly evil person even though he can be pretty selfish. The flashback showing the inadvertent consequences of his selfish actions was the hardest for me to watch in the film and not just because it was the most graphic. There was a detachment to it that made me feel that it wasn’t really necessary; it really was just collateral damage which in this case was the most depressing thing for me.
The English Patient is about relationships, and how when they get messed up they can affect all of these other relationships in ways that the characters didn’t really expect. Most of the characters in the film are connected to each other in some way and by the end you get to realize exactly how. I still kind of wish they had expanded it a bit more to encapsulate more of the present day stuff going on, but then the film would be even longer and it’s pretty long already at two hours and forty-two minutes. It didn’t feel too long to me, though. I really must read the book at some point because I bet more time is devoted to it there. The English Patient did very well at the Oscars. It was nominated for twelve academy awards: best picture, best director, Fiennes for best actor, Thomas for best actress, Binoche for supporting actress, best adapted screenplay, original dramatic score, sound mixing, cinematography, art direction, costume design, and editing. It won nine of these: best picture, best director, Binoche for supporting actress, original dramatic score, sound mixing, cinematography, art direction, costume design, and editing. I think it deserved it, but I still have not seen Fargo which was also nominated that year so maybe my opinion will change.
Long story short: 4/4 stars