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English Patient, The Print E-mail
Friday, 25 March 2005

The English Patient

Miramax Home Entertainment
starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe
release year: 1996
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Contrary to popular lore, not everyone will find 1996's Best Picture Oscar winner 'The English Patient' swooningly romantic. However, writer/director Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's novel is a remarkably intelligent look at love as both pathology and therapy while, at the same time, a work that is epic in both appearance and scope. Minghella has also managed to turn the book's dense, often confusingly elliptical, structure into a multi-layered, yet quite coherent, gripping narrative.

Minghella's first film, 'Truly Madly Deeply,' was about a woman literally in love with a ghost who physically appears to her. In 'The English Patient,' the ghosts live only in memory and speculation, but the characters are no less bedazzled by them. The action moves back and forth in time, from 1944 war-torn Italy to the North African desert of 1938, just before World War II broke out. In the 1944 sequences, Red Cross nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) has reached the end of her rope and insists on staying in a bombed-out, abandoned villa with a dying burn victim, Almasy (Ralph Fiennes).

Almasy, dubbed 'the English patient' because of his accent and manners, claims he can't remember what happened to him before his plane crashed. However, Hana's affection, the suspicions of an Allied spy (Willem Dafoe) and large doses of morphine all conspire to cast the patient's recollections back to the time when he was part of an archaeological team surveying uncharted regions of the desert. When a married colleague (Colin Firth) brings his wife Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the group, the emotionally remote Almasy begins to melt. The subsequent affair has far-reaching, cataclysmic consequences.

'The English Patient' won awards for cinematography and sound, and the DVD makes it easy to see (and hear) why. Minghella's tantalizing imagery is reproduced faithfully, starting with the teasing glide in Chapter 2 over what might be skin or rock, bodies or sand dunes, as a woman's voice rises in silkenly clear, ululating song. Chapter 13 captures each layer of wind in a sandstorm with ominous drama while still letting us hear the distinctive semi-humorous, semi-poetic banter that marks the start of Almasy and Katherine's troubled courtship. The plane crash in Chapter 27 recreates the theatrical effect of making it seem that we share the characters' danger of being crushed by the plummeting aircraft.

Minghella does a marvelous job of demonstrating how even the most devastating actions can creating healing ripples elsewhere: tending to Almasy allows Hana to recuperate from the damage she's sustained during the war, while Hana herself provides comfort and focus to a young soldier (Naveen Andrews) with a particularly stressful assignment.

Fiennes is so good at conveying Almasy's unapproachable aloofness that initially it's hard to conceive how someone as vibrant and charismatic as Scott Thomas' Katherine could take to him. However, Fiennes expertly brings about Almasy's transformation, opening the man up until he seems surprised by his own rawness. In the 1944 sequences, he conveys a great range of thought and feeling through some very persuasive burn makeup. Scott Thomas is likewise excellent as someone much more comfortable with her own identity from the outset. While a lot of people don't really want a physical relationship that begins with slapping, grappling and sobbing, the encounters between the pair in Chapters 15 and 16 are intriguing as character study, achieving an intensity so strong that we believe in the lingering effect they have on Almasy and on Hana.

The characters in 'The English Patient' are not people whose lives we necessarily want to share, but their interwoven fates are both fascinating and affecting.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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