Monday, September 24, 2012

The American Reviewer, Impatient: "The English Patient" (1996)

"Seinfeld" fans will remember the episode where Elaine was dragged to "The English Patient," and could not fathom why so many people she knew came to love it. I stand with Elaine.

In the closing days of World War II in Italy, Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) is not having a good week. She finds out her boyfriend has been killed in action, then watches another friend roll over a land mine. She decides she is cursed, and volunteers to stay behind with a mysterious burn patient and wait for him to die, then she will meet up again with her medical detachment.

The patient is suffering from amnesia, not remembering his own name. He has flashes of memory, including a wife. The pair stay at an abandoned monastery, but soon they receive visitors. Kip (Naveen Andrews) is a bomb detonator who takes a shine to Hana. Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is a thumbless morphine addict who immediately senses that he has met the burn victim before.

In the film's opening moments, we see the patient Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) suffer a horrible plane crash. The majority of the film is Almasy's recollections of meeting Katharine and falling in love with her.

Almasy was with some geologists, mapping the desert of North Africa. With war looming, the maps have become desirable to both sides of the conflict. Geoffrey (Colin Firth) arrives with wife Katharine in tow. Almasy and Katharine do not like each other, but certainly become good friends when they are trapped alone in a car during a sandstorm. They carry on an illicit affair, and Geoffrey soon finds out. Katharine breaks off all the sweaty sex, and Almasy mopes. I cannot give out too much about what happens to the pair, but the final fifteen minutes of the film are the best.

Anthony Minghella directs his own screenplay, but his editor should have put his foot down. While the film clocks in at one hundred and sixty minutes, it actually feels longer. Almasy and Katharine's story mostly takes place before the war, and Hana's story in the last days, and the film feels as long as the combat that filled in the half dozen years.

The film is certainly pretty, but Minghella gives us scenes from the novel without any deep characterization behind them. The courtship between Almasy and Katharine is mechanical and old-fashioned. Romantic lines that were old back when Humphrey Bogart made woo with Ingrid Bergman are transposed with hot and sweaty sex and nudity more akin to Cinemax. Colin Firth's reaction upon finding out about the affair is so overdone it is funny.

Willem Dafoe's Caravaggio should have been cut from the film completely. He is a listener as characters tell him everything. Watch for the completely unnecessary thumb losing scene, unless the world really needed a Jurgen Prochnow cameo. The rest of the performances are strictly one note until the final scenes when actual passion suddenly explodes onto the screen in between the frustration and the uninteresting wartime espionage subplot. Juliette Binoche's Oscar winning performance is a blank canvas left blank. She makes no impression whatsoever.

"The English Patient" is not the worst movie ever made, but might be one of the worst Best Picture Academy Award Winners ever made. I do not want to waste another three hours of my life sitting through it to be convinced otherwise. (* *) out of five stars.