The English Patient
August 20, 2018
Kristin Scott Thomas
2 Hrs., 42 Mins.
count and cartographer whom Hanna is taking care of. Hana and László came first. Kip, who is helping clear the area of landmines and other explosives, and Caravaggio, who appears happenstantially, come later.
In The English Patient (1996), a film in which this mismatched foursome make up the ensemble, we dance back and forth between two presents. One, of course, is this perilous 1945. The other is seen only in flashbacks, and lasts for a short period at the tail end of the 1930s. The dramatized recollections belong to László, who, as the film progresses, tells his quasi-housemates, and us, about the person he used to be before he sustained his injuries.
These 1930s are spent in the Sahara, right by the Egyptian-Libyan border, where László is mapping out the region with a group of friends and explorers. Pivotal to the story he recounts is a sagacious blonde named Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who, in addition to unexpectedly joining the odyssey with her pilot husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth), has a passionate, but tragic, affair with our principal protagonist.
If you were to watch The English Patient knowing nothing of its release and/or accolade-decorated aftermath, you might be inspirited to call it “Oscar bait.” The movie, which inches toward three hours and seethes with the sort of visual and sonic sweep that’s reminiscent of the influential but antiquated DeMille epic, practically implores the toplofty Academy for little gold men. So thematically regal and performatively imposing is it that it practically argues that being so big, ambitious, and competently made and acted deserves some sort of recognition, regardless of whether tedium is as much an omnipresent characteristic as grandeur. The feature ultimately won nine of the 12 Oscars for which it was nominated; such, inevitably, has made it among the most preeminent examples of what we might consider the classic “Oscar movie.”
Yet before I’d ever seen the film, its reputation had already been contaminated in my mind, not because of widespread backlash — the movie is still relatively beloved — but because of incendiary pushback from a sitcom character. For years, the feature has predominantly existed in my brain as an artifact that was hilariously mocked by Elaine Benes, the big-haired, Julia Louis-Dreyfus-portrayed Seinfeld (1989-’98) heroine.
For an entire episode, released just 11 days before The English Patient would win
Best Picture, Benes was gallingly bombarded with friends and co-workers fawning over the movie, which she at first simply did not care for that she came to execrate the more she heard about it.
After being forced to watch the film a second time, with her silver fox of a boss, J. Peterman (John O’Hurley), she loses her cool, sitting with her head between her legs in agony and squirming in her seat. “I can’t do this anymore,” she finally confesses, almost gasping. “I can’t. It’s too long. Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert, and just die already. Die!” Moments later, Benes declares, to everyone sitting in the theater, that she hates the movie, with avifaunal affect.
I don’t dislike The English Patient in a roaring, Benes-esque fashion: there are aspects of it, from the sumptuous cinematography to the wholehearted performances from Binoche and Scott Thomas, that I like. The film, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, is a fairly sturdy adaptation, especially given how sensorial, and syntactically labyrinthine, its Michael Ondaatje-penned source material is.
But reader, I enjoy that episode of Seinfeld much more than I do the movie it derides for more than half of its 22 minutes. Like Benes, I find the movie too long, and the 1930s-set story lacking. (Unlike the latter, though, I would have appreciated more investment in the desert-based scenes; the romance between László and Katharine is indisputably crafted to mimic the all-time great cinematic love affairs, but it is undernourished.) Thematically, The English Patient is discernibly supposed to be hefty — dealing with, in capital letters, love, loss, war, and death — but is only half-successful at injecting any of those motifs with the sort of nuance that might prompt a heavier emotional reaction.
A good movie, but not a great one, to be certain. At least it isn’t quite as bad as the melodramatic Benes might have you believing. Though sometimes I did wish it were the same length as, say, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, which was released the same year, was similarly a favorite of the Academy, made for a savvy burlesquing of its subject matter, and did it all — with non-hyperbolic perfection — in just 98 minutes. The English Patient strolls. But beautifully. C+
oled up in a bombed-out monastery is a quartet of people who could only have met under these circumstances. The year is 1945; the setting is Italy, which is nearing the end of its nearly two-year-long World War II campaign. The players are Hana (Juliette Binoche), a 22-year-old, French-Canadian nurse with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps; Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a spindly Canadian Intelligence Operative; Kip (Naveen Andrews), a valorous Sikh sapper affiliated with the British army; and László (Ralph Fiennes), a badly burned, amnesiac