1996

Film #378: The English Patient (1996)

We finally come to a film for which Fiennes received his only Best Actor nod to date. That film was The English Patient in which Fiennes played a character who, when we first meet him, is horribly disfigured after his plane crashes in Italy.


As he won’t live very long, French-Canadian nurse Hanna agrees to look after him primarily so she can get over the losses she’s suffered recently. The mystery man, known as The English Patient, soon finds his life in danger when Canadian thief Caravaggio starts to take an interest in him. Caravaggio believes the man was directly involved with him being captured and tortured by the Germans so wants to take his revenge. Whilst all of this action takes place in 1944, the rest of The English Patient takes us back to Cairo of the late 1930s in which the mystery man is revealed as a map maker. In addition we learn he is not English but in fact the Hungarian Count László Almásy, who is part of the Royal Geographic Society. Joining The Count’s expedition are married couple Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton the latter of whom catches the eye of our protagonist. It’s not long before the attraction becomes mutual and the two begin an affair which they find easy to do when Geoffrey spends a lot of time away from his wife. But soon The Count finds himself being jealous of Katherine’s interactions with other men and almost becomes abusive towards her. But there’s no denying that there is still passion in their relationship and back in the Italian scenes The Count reveals the measures he took to care for the woman he loved. Ultimately The Count’s words see both Carravagio and Hanna get what they want as he finally finds peace.

I remember my mum having a copy of The English Patient on VHS at one time and therefore snippets of the film seem familiar. However, as I was quite young I don’t think I completely understood the fact that the film went backwards and forwards in time. When the film first began I was incredibly taken with Hanna thanks to Juliette Binoche’s Oscar winning turn as the emotionally fraught nurse. Unlike something like The Thin Red Line where I never felt I really knew the characters, Anthony Mingella’s adapted screenplay instantly made me warm to Hanna. Therefore it was the scenes set in Italy that I enjoyed more than the ones in the African desert mainly because the characters there were a little harder to like. It was only when Katherine appeared and the affair started that I began to care for The Count as Fiennes was able to portray his love for her brilliantly. It was great seeing Fiennes play the lead rather than take a supporting turn and his performance put me in mind of the classic film stars that we saw in the 1930s and 1940s. Every inch the charming lead, Fiennes made his character seem quite arrogant but also somebody who would do anything for love. Even in the scenes where he was covered in convincing make-up he still made us care for his plight right up to the bitter end. However, I felt that this film really belonged to the women as both of the central actresses really brought the film to life. As I previously mentioned Binoche lit up the screen as Hanna and she conveyed her characters loss as well as her capacity to find love with Sikh bomb disposal expert Kip. Kristen Scott Thomas is one of my favourite actresses and proved her worth here as the elegant Katherine. She and Fiennes also had a winning chemistry which made it easy to believe their love for one another.

The English Patient’s other main strength is in its extremely striking visuals and so it’s not surprising to learn that the film was showered with Oscars. John Seale’s superb cinematography really brought the Tunisian and Italian exterior locations to life. Seale succeeded in taking the film’s audience into both the African desert and the Italian countryside which helped to separate the two storylines. In his book, editor Walter Murch claimed that he initially struggled to intercut the two different timelines of the story. But I think he did an excellent job especially in the final scene in which we see both Katherine and Hanna reading the same story aloud. Gabriel Yared’s score also adds to the overall feel of the film, particularly during the African scenes. Bringing all these elements together was the late Antony Mingella, who won awards both for his direction and screenplay. Mingella’s vision for the film was perfectly realised in a film which I came to really enjoy over the course of the two and half hour runtime. What I liked most about The English Patient was the fact that this was a film set during war time but which focused more on how the fighting prevented the characters from ever truly being loved. Whether it was explosives ending lives or the paranoia that was present on both sides, the war really affected all the film’s characters in different ways. However, I wouldn’t describe The English Patient as a war film but rather a love story set during the time of war and I found that to be a refreshing change.

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