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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, mainstream cinema can do justice to a literary bestseller, and exhibit all its complex themes and narrative strands dexterously.

In many ways, The English Patient is the apotheosis of the period where Anthony Minghella was in the ascendancy in 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, is clear.

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 blight Minghella’s film work elsewhere. The sense that the films are somehow a little too tasteful, and a touch too eager to sell their emotional content and intellectual muscle. Take, for example, the climactic scene in The English Patient where 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 if pleading for the audience’s sympathy, 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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