The English Patient (1996) – Anthony Minghella

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In a role that makes him look like Lord Voldemort almost as much as when he actually played Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes stars as Count Laszlo de Almásy, a pilot and cartographer suffering horrible burns.  Now being tended to by the Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) in an abandoned monastery, he recalls his ill-fated affair with the beautiful Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) during WWII.

I’d never seen this before, and I think I cried six individual times when I was watching it.  It’s unbelievably emotional and romantic.  We’re talking sweeping, classical romance here.  Nicholas Sparks, please step aside.

This is a film that is constantly shifting back and forth between two stories: Almásy’s present, and his memories of his past.  Generally speaking this format can sometimes be really tedious — right when one story is getting really interesting, you’re forced to switch to another — but Minghella artfully balances the two stories, making the viewer equally engaged by both of them.  He also thankfully dodges what I expected to find in this film, which was a host of scenes where Hana sits down beside Almásy’s bed and says, “Please, sir, tell me more about the woman in the desert…” Almásy is actually reluctant to share any of his memories, and perhaps the reason the transitions back and forth are so smooth is because they are occurring for the most part in head.

Although the film is technically set in WWII, it actually takes place mostly on the geographical and chronological outskirts of the war. Almásy’s past and present bring us to two primary settings, respectively: the Sahara desert and the Italian monastery, at the very beginning and the very end of the war.  Because of their isolation, these settings become sanctuaries for the characters, both from the events of the war and from ordinary societal pressures.  There is a sense that in these places, the characters are able to act freely and (at least for the time being) without real-world consequences.

The beautiful Katherine arrives in the desert with her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and — despite the fact that Almásy’s many years in the desert seem to have rendered him incapable of carrying on a normal conversation, let alone flirting — falls into an affair with the taciturn & dreadfully handsome Almásy.  She justifies her infidelity: “This is a different world, is what I tell myself. A different life. And here I’m a different wife.”

One of Almásy’s colleagues, a German photographer named Bermann (Peter Rühring), also takes advantage of the isolated location, evidently having an affair with Kamal (Samy Azaiez), one of the desert guides. When Kamal hits his head on a cave’s low ceiling, Bermann clutches him tenderly; and on the drive back to camp, Bermann flirtatiously feeds Kamal pieces of fruit.  He glances at Almásy and says with a nervous laugh, “How do you explain… to someone who has never been here… feelings which seem quite normal?”  For both Katherine and Bermann, the remote setting facilitates and excuses their feelings and actions.

(There also seems to be a strange connection between Bermann’s affectionate reaction to Kamal’s hitting his head, and Almásy’s coldness when Katherine hits her head while trying to end the affair.  I couldn’t quite piece together whether it was meant to be anything more than a clever contrast.)

In Almásy’s present day, the monastery also offers a place of respite for Hana.  At the beginning of the film, Hana has fallen into the common wartime habit of seeking fellow countrymen.  When she invites David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Canadian, to stay with them at the monastery, Almásy demands, “Why are people always so happy when they collide with someone from the same place? What happened in Montreal when you passed a man in the street? Did you invite him to live with you?”  “This is a war,” Hana answers; “where you come from becomes important.” And yet, soon after saying this she begins an affair with Kip (Naveen Andrews) (Sayid Jarrah from Lost!!), a Sikh lieutenant who specializes in deactivating German bombs.  The two find happiness together despite their completely different backgrounds.

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Sadly, the viewer and the characters share the bittersweet knowledge that these affairs must eventually come to an end, because they are predicated on something dreamlike and transient.  Even in these isolated locations, reality cannot be evaded forever.  And sadly, Hana’s initial statement that “where you come from [is] important” ends up being all too true, and the question of one’s background is ultimately Almásy’s undoing.

Although it has elements of a tragedy (the inevitability of Almásy and Katherine’s demise, for instance: within the first five minutes of the film we know that this will happen, and then we spend the rest of the film experiencing exactly how and why), this film is not an entirely pessimistic one.  It is a war movie that focuses not on the war itself, but on the impact that wartime can have on individuals; and it is thus a story that spans the breadth of human emotion.  While Almásy’s story is one of tragedy, Hana, with her warmth and almost childlike energy, is a source of vitality and hope for the viewer, and her story is ultimately an optimistic one.

This film has the trappings of an old classic and the nuance of a contemporary film.  The acting is pretty spectacular (no surprises there, it’s really an all-star cast), and Minghella’s screenplay and directing are outstanding.  Almásy’s scar tissue is a little much to take in at times, but what did you expect when you decided to watch a film about a man covered in third-degree burns?

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