I watched this film once 20 years ago, after it swept the 1997 Academy Awards and famously became the object of hatred for Elaine from Seinfeld:
I didn’t share Elaine’s visceral loathing for the movie, but I remember feeling rather underwhelmed and wondering why on earth this film was praised so much. Then recently I found a DVD of The English Patient in Mum’s collection (she’s one of the many people who loved the movie), and thought I’d give it a second chance.
The English Patient is the kind of sumptuous, old-fashioned, sweeping epic that used to win big at Oscars but feels almost quaint now. It begins with a horrific plane crash in the desert of North Africa, and its mysterious, badly burned survivor (Ralph Fiennes) who comes under the care of Canadian army nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). When he becomes too weak to move around, she chooses to remain and look after him in a ruined Tuscan monastery in the final days of WWII. Their solitude is brief, as they’re joined by another Canadian named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a professional thief turned spy during the war, who has his own reasons for tracking down the patient.
It’s soon revealed that the burned man is not in fact English, but a Hungarian named Count Laszlo de Almasy, whose tragic story the movie pieces together in flashbacks. In them, he’s a dashing but aloof young cartographer based in pre-war Cairo, making maps of the uncharted desert. His life is changed when a young British married couple joins the expedition, and he embarks on a passionate and ultimately destructive love affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Watching the film again, I could definitely appreciate the exquisite cinematography, stunning desert vistas and fine filmmaking on display. Its rich textures and beautiful evocative images are marvellous. My main problem however remains the same: the lack of emotional engagement in the central romance between Almasy and Katharine. In fact I had disliked Ralph Fiennes in this role so much it took me ages to get over the prejudice I’ve had against him since; Almasy is a boring cold fish who is simultaneously wet and creepy and irritating. I couldn’t care less for him and his equally irritating paramour. I don’t have a heart of stone and I did find myself moved by their story at the very end, but for the rest of the time my eyes would glaze over when these dull selfish people were onscreen. To give Fiennes his due, he’s fine as the present-day, dying Almasy, I just found him impossible to connect with as a romantic lead.
Warm, lively yet haunted, Juliette Binoche’s Hana is the best thing about the film, and I found myself easily drawn into her story and her own blossoming romance with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh serving as a bomb disposal man in the British Army. Hana and Kip share what is the film’s most memorable and romantic scene, set in a church and brimming with innocence and joy. If the main love story had as much feeling in it, I’d probably be one of The English Patient admirers because there’s so much to love about this ambitious movie. As it is, it’s a gorgeous epic with a hollow centre.