Friday, February 27, 2015

The English Patient (Best Picture 1996)

The English Patient is a very interesting film....IN SPITE of its direction and screenplay! It tells the story of Count Almasy and how he ended up burned over his entire body, dying in an Italian monastery. The story is relatively simple, but because it is told in flashbacks while there are other, parallel stories being told in the present, it is very difficult to follow. The characters' names change or are not revealed, for example, and their true intentions remain murky until nearly the end.

Simply and chronologically, the plot of the film is this: Count Almasy is a member of an archaeological & geographical group in Egypt before the outbreak of World War II. Geoffrey and his wife Katherine join this group, and Katherine ends up having an affair with Almasy. Their international team is torn apart when the war begins. Geoffrey learns of the affair and tries to kills all three of them in an airplane accident. He only succeeds in killing himself and wounding Katherine. Almasy hikes into the nearest village for help to save Katherine's life, but because he is Hungarian, he is arrested by gung-ho British soldiers for being a spy. He escapes from them, then sells his maps and photos to the Germans in exchange for an airplane so he can fly to Katherine's rescue. Unfortunately, she is already dead. On the flight to bring her body back to civilization he is shot down, and this is when he suffers his burns. He is found, and because he cannot speak at this time, someone somewhere assumes he is British (hence the title). He is then evacuated to Italy, where a Canadian nurse named Hana begins to care for him. She has had her fiance and her best friend killed, and she is too jaded to continue the war effort. She sets up a nursing station at the abandoned monastery in a little Italian village. She and Almasy (beginning to talk now) wait to die. Another Canadian named Caravaggio shows up, and it turns out he knew Almasy in Egypt. He thinks Almasy is a spy because the intelligence he (Almasy) traded to the Germans enabled them to capture and torture him (Carvaggio). Hearing Almasy's story, however, Carvaggio forgives him. Hana begins to fall in love with a mine-sweeper from India. When the war ends, Almasy asks Hana to put him out of his misery. She, bolstered by her new love, and having heard how he lost Katherine, agrees.

So that's all there is to it.

The wonder of this film is in the details. Unfortunately, the weakness of the film is in the details as well. There are some great scenes in this movie, for sure. The sandstorm and its after effects are awesome. The Cave of Swimmers that they discover in the desert looks real; I don't know if it is a real place where they filmed, or a made-up set they created, but it looks and felt wonderful. The excursions, also, look authentic. If everything wasn't on location, then the Art Direction and the Editing were fantastic. Likewise, the scenes at the Italian monastery felt absolutely "real." I want to believe that they filmed at a real building in Italy because if not, it looks *that* good. I am not surprised that the film won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography.
However, some of the scenes just go on waaaaay too long. Five minutes of watching someone (Katherine, it turns out) painting strokes during the opening credits seems excessive. In fact, the first twenty minutes are really not necessary, as we learn all about Count Almasy later (sometimes using the same scenes as these) and Hana's early scenes add nothing to her character or to the story.
The other great thing about this film is the caliber of the actors involved. All of the principals give us great performances. Ralph Fiennes plays unscarred Almasy as unloved and frustrated. It's as if he had been used in the past and did not want to open his heart to anyone, especially to a married woman. The scenes with him and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine are smoldering, first for what they don't want to happen, and then for what they can't control. Thomas has the harder role here, as the stoic and loyal wife who happens to be in love with two men at the same time. She carries it off well. When she and Almasy decide that they must break up, and he handles it worse than she does, she nearly spits at him, "You think you are the only one hurting right now!?" I was blown away by the amount of suppressed passion in that scene.
Colin Firth plays her husband, Geoffrey, as an all-around good guy and stumble-bum. Hiding behind this facade is initially just a British spy; then, he hides a heart-broken cuckolded husband as well. Willem Dafoe as Carvaggio is also spell-binding as a man we know is hiding something. As his story slowly unfolds, we learn to stop fearing him and to start pitying him. And lastly, Juliette Binoche holds the whole film together as Hana, the emotionally scarred nurse. She represents the audience, listening as Almasy and Carvaggio tell their stories, or reading Almasy's diary to him as he rests. When she opens her heart to "Kip" the mine-sweeper (played by the adorable Naveen Andrews, best known from his role on television's LOST), we feel her fear that he will soon die, just like everyone else she has loved. Although the film is named after Almasy, the story ends up being about her. Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for her role, beating out Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces.  
The English Patient won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Sound. So it really is technically brilliant. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas were both nominated for their roles, but neither won. The screenplay was nominated, but Billy Bob Thornton won for writing Slingblade.
This film feels like another one of those motion pictures that would "watch" differently after numerous viewings. I saw The English Patient when it first came out, but I didn't remember anything about it when I recently watched it again. If I were to watch it again now, I think I would be more critical of it. I would critique the angles of photography or the lighting and the staging or what have you because I wouldn't have to spend so much time trying to piece the story together. If you like your narratives more straight-forward (linear) and easy to understand, this film may not be for you. If you are willing to commit to a complex and complicated love story, you will probably enjoy it.

The English Patient
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1996*
Produced by Saul Zaentz
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Screenplay by Anthony Minghella
Based on the book by Michael Ondaatje

This is a short but sweet trailer.
It definitely gives you the "feel" of the grandeur of the film. 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Jerry Maguire
Secrets & Lies
Fargo is a wacky murder mystery from the Coen brothers set in a small Minnesota town. Frances McDormand won Best Actress for her role as the homicide detective. Jerry Maguire is the best Tom Cruise film I have ever seen, and because my wife likes Tom Cruise, I have seen most of them. Cuba Gooding, Jr won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Arizona Cardinals football player in desperate need of a sports agent. By the way, I learned from this film that my hometown St. Louis Cardinals had moved to Arizona. In Japan, you see, there isn't all that much news about the NFL. Secrets & Lies is a British drama about a black woman who goes searching for her birth mother and finds something she wasn't expecting. Shine is the biography of mentally disturbed pianist David Helfgott and his estranged relationship with his father. Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor for this role.

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