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The English Patient

August 25, 2010

The English Patient (1996)
Director: Anthony Minghella
Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche

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Synopsis: Hana (Juliette Binoche) is a nurse in Italy towards the end of WW2. She tends to a mysterious burnt patient (Ralph Fiennes), who recounts to her his love affair with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), which was doomed from the moment that WW2 hit Africa in the early forties.

Review: Of its type, The English Patient is superior fare – a textbook example of how big-budget, populist cinema can do justice to a literary bestseller, and exhibit all its complex themes and narrative strands dexterously.

In many ways, The English Patient was the apotheosis of that unlikely period where Anthony Minghella had ascended to the upper echelons of the Hollywood firmament. His skill as screen adaptor, commander-in-chief of epic productions on expensive, complicated shoots, and as collaborator with a bevy of skilled artists and technicians, was never better on display than here.

The cinematography is gorgeous – particularly those memorable opening and closing shots of the African desert, and Gabriel Yared’s score – one or two flaky moments aside – is a worthy appendage to the searing diegetic action. Even the casting (something that would mar Minghella’s later films), is spot on, with actors of the correct sensibility picked to play the major protagonists. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, in particular, justify Minghella’s vision of a very adult form of illicit liaison.

What prevents the film from reaching an exalted level though, is perhaps tied in to the criticisms that have blighted the reception of many of Minghella’s other works. The sense that his oeuvre is perhaps a little too tasteful, and a touch too eager to sell the emotional content and thematic muscle of its source texts too readily. Take, for example, the climactic scene in The English Patient where (spoiler alert) Fiennes’ Count Almaszy unleashes an agonising wail while carrying his deceased lover, all scored to the deafening chords of Yared’s emphatic soundtrack. The sequence plays as hysteric literalisation of the piece’s strived-for pathos, when a more selective and haunting evocation might have been to have Fiennes carrying the body out with a sombre and heartbroken assignation written in his eyes, and with Yared’s score creating a poignant, rather than hysterical, tone. It’s ultimately that tonal obviousness which marks The English Patient just below the level of a classic. (March 2008)

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