The English Patient

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

Set in North Africa and Italy before and during World War II, THE ENGLISH PATIENT is more than a romantic melodrama taking place during turbulent times. Instead, this film is a complex and mysterious journey into four characters who intersect in spirit and flesh.

In many of today’s films there seems to be a compulsion whereas the writer-director telegraphs and warns the audience of some crisis, or event by using tension, loud music or obvious plot movement. With The English Patient there were scenes which seemed predictable yet led to completely unexpected revelations. Every time I guessed an outcome or held my breath because it appeared a bomb would kill a lovable character, the unexpected took place.

This sense of mystery was central to lead character Count Laszlo de Alma`sy, a Hungarian played by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List). In the opening scene his 1930′s double wing plane is shot down over the Sahara desert. An Arab caravan takes his scorched body and turns him over to the allies.

Hana, the beautiful Canadian nurse played by Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage, Blue), just lost her lover and friend in the war and feels cursed. In her grief, she takes the dying patient and settles into an Italian monastery where she gives him morphine, reads to him while caring for his needs. It is her attempt to heal herself and offer him dignity while dying.

The burnt patient has lost his memory and we do not know his true history until he lapses into a series of flashbacks. With each flashback, the film takes us back three years before the war breaks out. The Count (Ralph Fiennes) is with a group from England’s Royal Geographical Society who are mapping areas of the desert by plane and car. As a group they revel in the pure excitement of discovery. Within the group is an aristocratic couple. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the feisty wife who develops an erotic and highly charged love affair with Ralph Fiennes. Their relationship is revealed through flashbacks and we slowly learn what happens as a result of their passion.

When the story takes us back into present time in the monastery we watch Hana fall in love with Kip a gentle Sikh lieutenant who is defusing and removing unexploded bombs left behind by the retreating German Army.

Juliette Binoche is such a powerful actress and in many ways is the spiritual center of this film. She conveys a goodness and non-judgmental caring which enables deep and heart felt feelings to tumble out of all the surrounding characters.

Included in this strange mix is William Defoe as Caravaggio, a charming and shrewd thief turned Canadian secret agent. He arrives at the monastery after hearing about the strange burnt patient. He is following his hunch that this is the man who was in Africa and responsible for betraying the allies.

Defoe shoots morphine as he copes with trauma and pain while attempting to bring out the truth from the frail and dying patient. Throughout their cat and mouse dialogue we in the audience are kept from knowing the truth until the end. Again, the sense of mystery and discovery remained intact and pushed the film into fantastic territory.

Fellini once said; any great film is composed of majestic scenes. The English Patient has one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. Kip takes Hana to an exquisitely painted chapel at night and hoists her in the air with a rope tied around her waist. He gives her a flare which lights up the area while he acts as the pulley swinging her back and forth. She stares at the gorgeous murals. The scene captures the gentle joy of giving.

THE ENGISH PATIENT provides the viewer with love, mystery, deep pain in a world gone crazy. We witness gorgeous photography, exceptional acting and a brilliant music score, which make this a very special film. It doesn’t feel like a conventional story because there are so many fragments which unite rather than splinter.

From everything I have read about the making of this film, local producer Saul Zaentz deserves tremendous credit for enabling a team to create such beautiful storytelling. This is a long film with editing that requires your patience. It is worth it.