Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient, turned into film, was given lavish praise from art-house reviewers, which is often a warning for me to stay away; such reviews so frequently gush about films which carry nothing more than pretentious style and indecipherable political moralizing. However, I saw previews which showed heartrendingly gorgeous cinematography, and such an odd assortment of players, that I grew curious.
I was not disappointed. From the very first scene to the very last act, it was a mesmerizing experience. I was sucked into the story as if I were drugged.
What touched me was the ambiguity of the characters, the uncertainty about their motivations, the randomness of the occurrences, and the depth of the unfolding tragedy in their lives.
The story takes us into the privileged world of aristocratic Europeans playing at amateur archaeology in the Middle East of the pre-war era. They are removed from the politics of a Europe which is about to plunge the world into the most intense, convulsive war of the 20th century, but their experiences are deeply affected by the consequences of these politics.
We, the audience, are led through the story as witnesses to a gradually receding amnesia suffered by a badly burnt mystery man, the English patient, who is only one of dozens of injured soldiers trucked through war-torn Italy in the dying days of the war.
Under the circumstances, this man is too insignificant to consider more than in passing. But the attentions of French-Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), who recognizes his impending death, isolate him from the much greater pain all around him and permit him to recollect the details of his own experiences.
By all rights he should be dead already. He hangs on only in order to remember who he was and how he came to be the English patient — a personal pilgrimage of penitence and pain.
The film intercuts the events of the last days of his life with sequences of his recollections. Slowly we learn of the unlikely romance between an English patrician, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the East European Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes).
Beautifully observed and photographed, the story created in me a deep yearning for the innocence and privilege of the world these characters inhabited. Never mind that I never knew this world, and have no way of telling whether it really was privileged or innocent.
The characters in the story paid the price for their idyllic pastimes. The class structures from which their privilege stemmed were torn apart by the war, which brutally intruded into their worlds and destroyed their innocence.
Just as a person caught in the immensely powerful and completely impersonal forces of a breaking wave on a sandy shore, they were tossed around like insignificant dust. The English patient is washed up, alive but dying, unsure what has happened to him.
The only answer is that he must re-live the pain of the most extraordinarily agonizing loss in his abbreviated life. I wept at the culmination of a sequence which shows him trying to return to his injured lover, stashed in a cave while he went looking for help, and arriving too late.
Although this is the loss which most deeply affected me, it was not lost on me that the American spy, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), also pursued a private agony in the film.
He was captured by the Germans, tortured, had his thumbs cut off and was now hunting those he thought responsible, including Count Almasy.
He found the English patient in the twilight of the latter’s life and became a confessor to the full recollection of the tragedy which had befallen him.
This experience removes Caravaggio’s murderous intent and calms his own troubled spirit. He, like me, the spectator, cannot but feel the deepness of Almasy’s loss. Even if the Count was guilty of treason, he has already paid more than most for his sins.
It is no relief that Hana, who grants Almasy’s final request, and the Indian explosives expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews) who is drawn to her, have lives ahead of them at the conclusion of the story. It is no soothing resolution that the English patient can finally put his painful memories to rest. It does not help that his death is the symbolic fading of the memories of the pain endured by the entire generation.
Here is life experience and disappointment of such a universal nature that I could not rid myself of the cathartic emotional pain by attempting to dismiss it as a romantic fable, or as a relic of a past which is of no consequence to me.
Perhaps my years are enough to allow me to understand just how precariously my own life is, balanced between innocent privilege and the kind of impersonal, brutal upheaval which destroyed the lives of the lovers in the story. Perhaps I now recognize that I have things which I treasure so much that their loss would leave me a hollow shell, barely able to stand the pain of recollecting the loss.
Most certainly I understand, with some trepidation and fear, that if that wave of circumstance and history hits my own sandy shore, I too will be tossed about randomly, perhaps never to breathe again, or, perhaps worse, to be spat out alive only to realise that I have lost those I most dearly loved, and with them my purpose and will to live.
That is the effect of the English Patient. That is its power of meaning.
At the 69th Academy Awards in 1997, the film was nominated in 12 categories, winning in nine: Best Picture (Saul Zaentz); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Juliette Binoche); Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig, set decoration by Stephanie McMillan); Best Cinematography (John Seale); Best Costume Design (Ann Roth); Best Director (Anthony Minghella ); Best Film Editing (Walter Murch); Best Original Dramatic Score (Gabriel Yared); and Best Sound (Walter Murch, Mark Berger, David Parker, and Christopher Newman). How Ralph Fiennes lost to David Rush in Shine, and Kristin Scott Thomas to Frances McDormand in Fargo is beyond me. I thought Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade was arguably more impressive than the other contenders, and there was no stronger nominee than Scott Thomas that year.
Tiger Moth Productions/Miramax Films, 162 minutes. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje). Produced by Saul Zaentz. Cinematography by John Seale. Music by Gabriel Yared.
With Ralph Fiennes as Count Laszlo de Almásy, Juliette Binoche as Hana, Willem Dafoe as David Caravaggio, Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine Clifton, Naveen Andrews as Kip, Colin Firth as Geoffrey Clifton, Jürgen Prochnow as Major Müller.