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Anthony Minghella
Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth
Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje

In memory, love lives forever.
Box Office:
Budget $27 million.
Opening weekend $278,349 on 10 screens.
Domestic gross $78.651 million.
Rated R for sexuality, some violence and language.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Score-Gabriel Yared; Best Supporting Actress-Juliette Binoche; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Sound.
Nominated for Best Actor-Ralph Fiennes; Best Actress-Kristin Scott Thomas; Best Screenplay.

Widescreen 1.85:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 161 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 3/4/1998

• None

Score soundtrack

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The English Patient (1996)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

As a favor to my then-girlfriend, I saw The English Patient during its theatrical run. Man, it's a miracle the relationship survived that debacle. Did you ever see that Seinfeld where Elaine is forced to see The English Patient? By the end of the second screening she's reduced to screaming, "Stop telling your boring stories about the desert and die already!" That, my friends, was me, except I felt that way the first time.

Did my impressions change upon subsequent viewings? No. (Caution: my discussion includes more than a few potential spoilers, so skip ahead to the DVD-specific elements if you want to avoid these.)

Set during the late part of World War II, Patient introduces us to a French Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) whose friends and lovers all have the annoying tendency of getting killed. Fairly despondent, she decides to stay with a mysterious unnamed dude referred to as ďthe English patientĒ Ralph Fiennes). His plane crashed in the desert. Badly burned, he seems to remember little about his past, which inspires some suspicions that heís a German spy.

As he nears death, he doesnít take the many movements well, which is why Hana chooses to hole up in an abandoned monastery with him and care for him until he dies. Apparently he remembers something about his past, as we launch into flashbacks and learn heís Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy, a mapmaker prior to the War. He goes to work in the North African desert with Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas). Despite his cynical and world-weary attitude, Almasy immediately seems intrigued by the more exuberant and vivacious Katharine.

Essentially the rest of the movie follows their slow-developing romance, as we see what happens to them and how Almasy ends up in his current state. In the meantime, we check out how Hana tends to her mystery patient and also moves on, which includes a burgeoning romance with Indian explosives expert Lt. Kip Singh (Naveen Andrews). That side of things also introduces David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a mysterious dude who has a suspicious interest in Almasy and knows of the Countís past.

What problems persist with Patient? For one, it's just too damned long and too damned boring. Every once in a while something happens, but for the most part everyone just sits around and gabs about their dull problems. I found the characters to be wholly uncompelling, so why would I want to listen to uninteresting people for more than two and a half hours?

I never truly bought into the whole premise of the film. Here you have Almasy, a generally bitter, pragmatic, and unlikable chap. He has his life and world-view turned upside-down by the lovely Katharine, apparently the greatest siren ever to enter the desert. Almasy immediately falls for her and becomes happy and cheerful. By the end of the film, both he and her husband essentially kill themselves because they can't have her.

Unfortunately, the film never provides us with any coherent reason why these guys are so nuts about Katharine. She's pretty, and she seems reasonably intelligent and articulate, but that's about it. Almasy betrays friends and allies because of his love for her, but I never found it plausible that he would do so.

The film may have had more time to explore the rationale behind Almasy's emotions if the completely extraneous and uninteresting subplot that involves nurse Hana and her life been omitted. Essentially, Hana is an expository character; her presence is required to give the events that lead Almasy to tell his boring stories about the desert a reason to occur. Why? Why couldn't the story simply focus on Almasy and leave out her contrived romance and other personal affairs? Though Almasy's affairs held little interest for me, I cared even less about Hana; I found no reason for the scenes that included her to exist.

I also strongly objected to the hypocrisy of this and other films that address marital infidelity. At the risk of sounding sexist, I propose this: ask any woman who liked The English Patient why they liked it, and invariably the answer comes back, "It was soooo romantic!!!" Let me see if I have this straight: woman cheats on devoted mate - Katharine's husband is always portrayed as a good and extremely devoted guy - which immediately results in despair for all involved and ultimately ends with the death of all three. That's romantic?

What I find hypocritical here and with other films in which a wife cheats on a husband - The Bridges of Madison County springs to mind - is how gloriously these affairs are portrayed. When the woman cheats, it's always some fantastically romantic dalliance that makes the women in the audience swoon. When the man cheats, however, he's invariably a superficial cad who has to pay (First Wives Club, anyone?) Yes, I'm sure that there are some exceptions to this rule, but I believe it's largely on the money, and I find it to be extremely distasteful.

I also thought that The English Patient manipulated the audience's emotions as calculatedly as any cheesy horror film. This tendency was most evident in the scenes that featured Hana. Here we have a woman who loses her fiancť' and her best friend within the first minutes of the film; both of them got blowed-up. As the film progresses, she finds a new love: a guy whose job it is to disarm bombs! Good choice, baby! Needless to say, this romance sets up many scenes in which the filmmakers threaten to explode the new boyfriend (who never does go "boom"). Friday the 13th was more subtle than this.

I will admit that The English Patient has some things going for it. Overall, it's a competently made film that possesses a fair amount of style. Excepting the crude way it toys with the emotions of the audience, it tells its story reasonably well; I just have severe problems with the story itself. John Seale's cinematography has been justly celebrated; the film looks great, and despite the tedious nature of the story, the film moves at a reasonable pace.

As a whole, the acting is pretty good. As he proved in Schindlerís List, Fiennes knows how to play cold, heartless bastards, and he proves effective here. (His sobbing scenes are another matter, however.) Kristin Scott Thomas does an acceptable job, although I thought she seemed vaguely tipsy in most of her scenes. (Maybe that's why everyone loved her so - she was a good source of cheap booze.) Most of the supporting roles also come across just fine.

Most of them, which means there is at least one exception. That exception is Juliette Binoche; how she won an Academy Award for that performance is beyond me. Her acting rarely transcends the level of wooden, stiff, and unnatural. She expresses little emotion other than the periods during which she breaks down into tears; those scenes aren't stiff - they're just ridiculous. I can't recall the last time I saw more absurd-looking tears on screen. If you'll forgive me another Seinfeld reference, I see Binoche's histrionics and remember the episode in which George pretends to sob to get Susan to postpone their wedding. The difference is that George was much more convincing.

Chalk up The English Patient as one of the weaker Best Picture winners. Lovely to look at but otherwise insipid and manipulative, the movie pushes too many buttons without anything more to engage the viewer.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B+/ Bonus F

The English Patient appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This transfer seemed more acceptable back in the early days of DVD, but now it came across as less winning.

Partially due to the non-anamorphic transfer, sharpness appeared acceptable and that was about it. The image mostly looked reasonably concise and delineated, but it never rose above a level of mediocrity. Detail was adequate and rarely became less than that. Some minor examples of jagged edges and shimmering cropped up, and I also saw light edge enhancement. Print flaws seemed pretty minor. The occasional speck or mark popped up, but nothing severe occurred.

Due to its desert emphasis, Patient featured a subdued palette, but the DVD didnít replicate it especially well. The movie suffered from a general sense of haziness, as it often looked as though we watched the action through a thin sheet of gauze. The colors looked passable but the murkiness left them somewhat dull. The same factors affected blacks, which were acceptably dense but no better, while shadows were fairly easily discernible and that was it. By no means did Patient present a bad image, but it seemed decidedly mediocre.

On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio of The English Patient seemed more consistently satisfying. The soundfield seemed fairly broad and engaging. The movie presented nicely delineated stereo music and also created a good sense of environment. Much of the movie stayed with a fairly limited soundscape, which made sense given its chatty romantic tone. Those scenes displayed a solid feeling of environment and added a reasonable number of small touches to make them more believable.

The surrounds mainly bolstered those elements, though they came to life more eagerly during louder sequences. Various war scenes came across as pretty bold and engaging, as did the sandstorm. These used all five channels well and created a vivid and vibrant sense of atmosphere.

Audio quality seemed fine. Speech always appeared natural and distinctive, and I noticed no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music was warm and rich and showed good range. Both score and songs were lively and bright. Effects also sounded clean and accurate. No distortion occurred, and they presented nice dynamics. Bass response seemed tight and firm. While not quite excellent, the soundtrack worked well.

Unfortunately, the extras on this DVD seem less compelling. Thatís because it includes none.

One of the dullest and most plodding Oscar winners in memory, The English Patient deserves few of the accolades poured upon it. A flat effort, it fails to engage the viewer beyond its attractive visuals. The DVD presents bland picture with fairly good audio and no extras. Skip this clunker.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.4266 Stars Number of Votes: 75
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