The English Patient (15)

Directed by Anthony Mingella
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristen Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth

When you come out of the cinema at the end of a film, you are usually able to give an opinion of some sort. Certainly if you didn't like it, then you can usually say so. Sometimes you can have a sort of neutral feeling that it was OK while you were in there but in the cold light of day you aren't sure. Sometimes you emerge into the real world thinking, 'great effects', 'good action', 'scary thriller','good acting','clever script', 'nice weepy' etc. Very occasionally though, you see a film and come out just thinking, 'that was terrific' without being able to pin down what it was exactly that made it so good. The English Patient was that sort of film. Yes, the acting was excellent, Fiennes and Scott Thomas are incredibly beautiful people, the desert scenery was stunning, the script was perfectly paced, the story was absorbing etc, but there is no one thing, it was just an all round wonderful film. This is a truly wonderful film from writer/director Mingella that has been showered with Oscar nominations, and for once, fully deserves them. Mingella has crafted a visually luscious epic that is an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Booker prizewinning novel. The story is a simple one at its core: dashing but enigmatic Hungarian Count Almasy(Fiennes) falls for married Katharine Clifton(Scott Thomas). The backdrop is North Africa, just before the start of World War 2. However, the telling of the story is what is different.
The film opens with a plane shot down over the desert. A horribly burnt survivor is rescued. Two years later we see this man again being nursed by Hana(Binoche) in Italy. The hideously scarred man is trying to recover his memory before he dies and recalls the affair between himself and the beautiful Katharine. This twin narrative is wonderfully handled by Mingella. Both sections are equally facinating, although it is the doomed romance between Fiennes and Scott Thomas that is at the core of the film. Hana's growing relationship with Sikh bomb disposal expert Kip, and the arrival of a shifty, thumb-less stranger David Caravaggio(Dafoe) are slightly less developed, but still very vivid and absorbing scenes.
Mingella should be doubly aplauded for not only directing but also adapting the screenplay. I haven't read the book, but this was no small task apparently. Michael Ondaatje fully approved I hear. Mingella started out as a writer for tv like Inspector Morse(maybe that explains Kevin Whately's appearence. What with Jimmy Naill in Evita and Whately here, the Geordies are coming!) Mingella's directing debut was the outstanding drama Truly,Madly,Deeply with Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman. His first American venture was Mr Wonderful, a charming romantic comedy that did little business. With this film, Mingella worked for many years on the screenplay, and insisted on Fiennes and Scott Thomas rather than American stars. So, the excellent script is what we might expect from a writer of Mingella's calibre. The film is directed brilliantly aswell though. The cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous, and the switches and dissolves between the two story strands are expertly done.
With Truly,Madly,Deeply, Mingella showed that he could handle top notch acting from talented actors. Again here, he draws excellent performances from his stars. Fiennes is not too likeable as the standoffish count, but he is so handsome we'll forgive him his chilly demeanor. Besides, things soon warm up when he and Katharine begin their affair. Fiennes has to do an accent-what on Earth does his natural voice sound like!?- but this doesn't detract from his performances. Kristen Scott Thomas has never looked more ravishing. She suits the dusty desert look with her skin. She has a serene beauty and confidence that is magnetic. She has been one of the best British film actresses around for a while, so it is nice to see her get a good meaty role, and a few plaudits too. I have never been a big Juliette Binoche fan, she has always seemed a bit fey or affected, but here she is wonderfully warm and compassionate. She nurses the English Patient and is the centre of attention in the Italy scetion of the movie. Her growing attraction to a Sikh man(Naveen Andrews) builds quite nicely. There is a memorable scene in a church where Kip takes her up a rope pulley to see the frescos. Dafoe, on the other hand, has a poorly developed role. He looks like he may be an avenging angel, but his character drifts out of the picture. Was he really so affected by the love story of Almasy and Katharine?
If I were trying to pick holes, I do think the film is a little slow to get going, and all Star Trek fans will immediately see the scarred face of the English Patient and know that the make up artist must be a fan of Odo from Deep Space Nine- a striking similarity! But there is no point in nit picking. This is an old style romantic/weepy epic. Wonderful characters, excellent script, fabulous scenery- the sort of film they used to make, but better. So many images and moments from the film stick in your memory. In these days of action, action, action movies that require very little brain, this film is a visual and mental feast. One to see. Definitely. 9.5/10

March 1997

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