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.