The English Patient (1996) ****1/2
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Watching The English Patient, I was reminded of sweeping epics like Giant or Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. The film is achingly romantic and completely rich in its visual and narrative style. At three hours long, it’s not the easiest film to get through in one sitting. This was actually the second time I tried to watch the film. A few years ago, I just couldn’t get into it and at about the forty minute mark, I turned it off. This time, I was folding laundry while watching. I had a lot of laundry to fold, which is good since I had a lot of this movie to watch.
Ralph Finnes portrays the English patient himself—a severely burned and disfigured man who doesn’t remember his own name. He is taken in by Hana, played by my new favorite actress Juliette Binoche. Binoche surprisingly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this film. After seeing her in this and Chocolat, I am infatuated by this actress and her ability to win me over the second she comes on screen and then to hold that affection completely from beginning to end. There wasn’t a moment in either Chocolat or The English Patient when I wasn’t absolutely enamored by her.
Hana is a lonely nurse who is forced to grieve the deaths of people close to her. She even thinks she might have a curse. Whether she seriously believes this or not is unclear, but I’m sure she feels a sense of guilt. She tries to hide or maybe even deal with that guilt by dedicating her life to this patient during the last days of his life, since he will no doubt be dead soon. She reads to him, gives him morphine, takes care of him and listens to him. The movie wisely brings more characters into this situation since I’m not sure the numerous flashback scenes could have been interesting if they simply resulted from the relationship only between the two of them. We get a stranger with no thumbs who seems to know something about this patient and his past. We also get a young bomb expert who wins the affection of Hana so she can have her own love story while we hear the recollections of the love story between the patient and his lost love, Katharine, played by the beautiful Kristen Scott Thomas.
The recollections piece together the story of the patient, whose real name is Almasy, and his affair with Katherine. Almasy and Katherine’s husband, Geoffrey, are both part of a map making exhibition with the National Geographic Society. While Geoffrey must be away for long periods of time, Katherine and Almasy fall in love and finally make love in one of the most aggressive sex scenes I’ve ever seen! I wasn’t sure if they were having sex or a seizure. Either way, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. The following scenes are so extremely romantic that we really come to believe that their bond is strong and true. That bond is tested severely during many times and their love is lost and then found again, but it may just be too late.
It’s impossible to really get a sense of The English Patient without seeing it. It’s massive and works very well! I can definitely see how someone can say it’s boring. I was bored at times too. Yet, it’s important to watch this movie when you’re really in the mood to watch a movie and not when you’re just looking for something to pass the time. This film could actually make the time feel like it’s going slower. Spending three hours in the late Anthony Minghella’s world in The English Patient is time very well spent. It won’t make the three hours feel like two hours, but it will make the three hours richly romantic!