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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #388: The English Patient

I have only seen two of the late Anthony Minghella’s films, but based on what I have seen he seemed to have a taste for old-school Hollywood movies that were made on a grand scale and shot on location. Cold Mountain (2003) was a Civil War drama featuring epic battles, a love story, and Academy Award winning performances. Before that his signature film was The English Patient (1996), a World War II drama featuring slightly less epic battles, a love story, and multiple Academy Award winning performances. Although decried by a Seinfeld character for being too long, Minghella’s film deserved every award it received and emphasizes the loss cinema suffered when he died in 2008.

Since I had nothing to do last Valentine’s Day (not that I am complaining) I thought I might as well dig through Netflix and cross off another movie off my list. As The English Patient came out when I was around nine years old I of course missed it when it first came out and only heard about through pop culture over the years, mostly from Elaine Benes complaining about how long it is on an episode of Seinfeld. To be fair it is 162 minutes long, but in my opinion the length of a movie doesn’t matter as long as it keeps you interested for the whole ride. The flashback structure and the engaging performances did just that for me and overall made for a pretty good February 14.

The movie hooks you up with a mystery. In the late 1930s the German army shoots down a plane in the Sahara desert piloted by a man (Ralph Fiennes) who is transporting a dead woman. Bedouins later rescue him out of the wreckage, but his body has been badly burned by the explosion. Years later French-Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) is taking care of the man in Italy during the final stages of World War II. The man’s deaths is imminent, so Hana decides to separate from the rest of the army and camps out in a monastery to make his last days more comfortable.

All this time she has no idea who the man is as he claims to have forgotten his name. How did he end up in that plane with a dead woman? Was he flying for the British or the Germans? David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian intelligence officer who arrives to provide supplies to Hana believes he recognizes the man and that he is responsible for torture he suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Through tense conversations between Caravaggio, and Hana reading excerpts from the man’s diary, pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Flashbacks take place in Egypt and Libya when the man, real name Count Lazlo Almasy, was working as a cartographer for a British archaeological expedition. A serious man who focuses on his job, the count is distracted by the arrival of his financiers, George and Katherine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas). A beautiful woman in a desert expedition populated only by men is sure to cause some friction, and sure enough what you think is going to happen ends up happening. Through events that are somewhat contrived, Lazlo and Katherine end up spending the night together in a car during a sandstorm. Nothing like a near-death experience to bring two people together, even if one of them is married. Over time the affair between the serious Lazlo and the free-spirited Katherine grows more passionate, while poor George begins to suspect something.

The story, based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, almost gives you two movies for the price of one. When the action gets back to the Italian monastery Hana herself is falling in love with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a member a bomb disposal unit, despite the fact she believes all the men in her life are cursed to die in the war. In a nerve-wracking scene, Kip is trying to defuse an unexploded bomb while dozens of tank are heading his way, making the bomb vibrate dangerously. Do you feel lucky today?

The movie received multiple awards, including an Oscar for Juliette Binoche, but I found Ralph Finnes had a much tougher job. For half the movie he plays this stoic English archaeologist whose heart is slowly melting, and for the second half he is confined to bed with his skin badly burned as his character reflects on the mistakes that led him to his current situation. For an actor mostly known for playing villains, this is a reminder he has many more acting tricks up his sleeve.

Running time aside, The English Patient deserved every accolade it received and makes you wonder what else Minghella could have achieved had he not died so soon.


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