The English Patient (1996)

D: Anthony Minghella
S: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche

Cold and uninvolving adaptation of Michael Ondaajte's popular and critically acclaimed novel which hyped its way to multiple oscars. Geographical, social and political boundaries are insignificant compared to the boundaries of the human heart. When boundaries are transgressed, the only consequences which matter are emotional ones. So the characters learn in this lavish and mannered film in which craft has been mistaken for art. Cartographers working on the setting down of human political boundaries in Africa just prior to the outbreak of the second world war find themselves breaking rules all around when cold and disant Ralph Fiennes falls for married Kristin Scott Thomas. He transgresses every boundary which supposedly defines his life in his longing for her, as does she. The entire tale is told in a series of flashbacks as dying Fiennes is cared for by unlucky French nurse Juliette Binoche and watched by embittered Willem DaFoe who seems to know of some dark secret in her patient's past.

Lush cinematography, a sweeping score, decorous production design and costuming, a slow and deliberately fragmented dual narrative structure all contribute to the veneer of taste and refinement which results in misguided feeling that this film deserves to be heaped with praise. But despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, there are few moments of genuine warmth or passion. As with most tales of repressed people, the characters are essentially withdrawn navel-gazers who elicit little sympathy. Their couplings and partings seem ornamental against an elaborate setting. Only Binoche exhibits any real capacity for feeling (and significantly was the only actor to win an Oscar here despite the numerous statuettes doled out to the film), but even she is made to seem almost comically unlucky at the outset and then altogether too perfectly wonderful to be believable. Her courtship by a Sikh minesweeper is the most compelling element of the story, and provides the film with its one magical moment (the scene with the murals). But she is nonetheless a supporting character to what is supposed to be the primary drama, and though both stories inform one another, the latter is dull and distancing.

Essentially, The English Patient is a paperback romance dressed up with some weighty subtexts. This is a tradition long honoured in film history, of course, including previous Oscar winners such as Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago and Out of Africa. Therefore it may appeal to those of a romantic sensibility more than general audiences. It is not a bad film so much as a routine one which has attracted too much attention for its own good. But unlike some its predecessors, it remains aloof and unengaging even when it tries its hardest to wring a big emotional highlight out of the central plot. Fiennes' and Thomas' characters consistently fail to generate emotional empathy and by the time the inevitable tragic climax arrives, we don't really care if they live or die, let alone prove that love is more important than life itself.

In an effort to give the film more punch, generic scenes of the horrors of war are included at regular intervals, from the death of Binoche's boyfriend and then her best friend to DaFoe being tortured by Nazis. The idea of war is central to the thematic preoccupation with boundaries and identity, but the film is weighted to favour the romance. Given that that is not effective, the rest of the picture fails as well. The second, more worrying effect is that the war is trivialised, a minor squabble between groups of people who fail to realise that love conquers all; which surely can't have been the point.

In the final analysis, The English Patient is a tasteful and attractive film which has much less under its surface than it appears to. It serves best as a soapy romance, with its serious themes going astray and falling short of breaking through the gush. The talents involved have clearly entered into the thing with the hopes of bringing the strands of personal and political tragedy together, but it remains a curious and studied meditation on ideas rather than a gripping and emotionally satisfying exploration of the human condition. Admiration for the film seems to have been centred on its technical merits. To be fair it is carefully rendered and highly detailed. But it seems to be so preoccupied with getting the story down that the absence of a real heart has not been noticed. Compared with director Anthony Minghella's previous, wonderful romance Truly Madly Deeply, this icy, unrewarding film is empty and worthless.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.