The English Patient (1996)

Anthony Minghella | 2hr 42min

A Hungarian, an Indian, and a couple of Canadians seek refuge in a bombed-out Italian monastery, each complete strangers, yet bound together by the trauma of war. The Hungarian, a badly-burned amnesiac who eventually recalls his name as László Almásy, is under the care of French-Canadian nurse Hana, while being sought out by the mysterious Canadian spy, Caravaggio. Meanwhile Kip, the Indian bomb disposal expert, has been tasked with clearing out mines from the surrounding villa, facing the possibility of death every single day while taking a romantic liking to Hana.

Both here and in the desert where Almásy spent many years exploring with a British expedition crew, national identities are broken down into meaningless constructs that are only ever secondary to individual character, though such a liberal ideology cannot thrive in wartime where divisions and allegiances are inescapable. Wistful memories and melancholy regrets swirl all through The English Patient’s vast, time-leaping narrative, developing its gentle ruminations into a dramatic epic of extraordinary beauty, compassion, and patience.

The dull grey palette of the present day story juxtaposed against the thick, orange hues of Almásy’s flashbacks in the desert.

Anthony Minghella takes confident charge of this bold literary adaptation in the director’s chair, imbuing it with all the historical weight of a legend set in the not-too-distant past. His cinematic inspirations are plain to see in the largescale cinematography, implementing lessons learnt from David Lean by using the sprawling emptiness of the desert to underscore the majesty of the larger-than-life characters traversing it, only for it to inevitably trap them in its dry, arid expanse.

Minghella tells a classical love story with huge, sweeping photography. It is particularly worth singling out his aerial sequences, soaring alongside biplanes.

The aerial photography of sandy dunes shot from atop biplanes distinctly evokes the sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, and when the Hungarian adventurer finally arrives in Cairo with his crew, the urban Egyptian sandstone interiors bring a warm, intimate touch to the romantic drama. Inside Almásy’s hotel bedroom especially, its delicate latticework opens onto the hazy cityscape outside, and it is against this handsome backdrop that he shares his first, secret kiss with his travelling companion, Katharine, away from her husband’s eyes. Even beyond sunrises and sunsets, there is a permanent orange hue hanging in the air, smothering Almásy and his fellow explorers in the sweltering heat of Egypt – a distant contrast to the cool greyness of the present-day monastery, where these flashbacks are contained.

A thorough dedication to the production design in Cairo with the latticework, archways, sandstone, and Egyptian textiles.
Minghella often settles on this angle of Binoche and Fiennes next to the bed, building their connection in an abandoned monastery.

Bridging these timelines set on either end of World War II are the sort of long dissolves that editor Walter Murch previously perfected in Apocalypse Now, and which now mesmerically slip between the explorer’s current bed-ridden existence and his slowly returning memories. His only possession, a copy of Herodotus’ Histories, contains a bundle of personal artefacts inside, and as we linger on them, small pieces of their context come trickling back. Even more significantly, Hana’s reading of passages from the volume itself begins to evoke the face and voice of Katharine, elegantly conveyed through Minghella’s intercutting between both recitations.

Gorgeously edited in the long dissolves bridging past and present, conjuring memories over Fiennes’ heavily made-up face.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Scott Thomas are thoughtfully grounded in these parts, offering a feminine sensitivity to both sides of the story, though it is Ralph Fiennes’ work in playing both the romantic lead and scarred survivor which stands as the greatest acting achievement here. Watching him bask in the freedom of the desert where national identities mean nothing lifts the spirits of the film high, right before the inevitable crash.

Perhaps the great irony of Almásy’s mental and physical injuries is that they effectively grant his wish of being truly nationless, and now as he recalls his identity, the dangers of such an attitude settles in too. When Katharine is left injured in the desert, he leaves to seek help, though only comes across further obstacles without proper identification on him. With his foreign-sounding name, he is arrested by British forces on suspicion of being a spy, and when he finally escapes, he is only able to make it back to Katharine by offering maps to a Germany army unit. After all, with no allegiance to any country, what difference does it make?

Obviously The English Patient isn’t on the same exalted level as Lawrence of Arabia, but the grandeur of these long shots making use of the desert’s natural lighting is comparable.

For Cairo, the difference is staggering, as in one stunning long shot we helplessly watch Nazi forces descend on the city in parachutes. For Caravaggio, it means losing his thumbs, as he is swiftly captured, tortured, and mutilated for his role as a Canadian Intelligence operative. As far as he is concerned, Almásy is a killer, not just responsible for the deaths of many in Cairo, but for Katharine and her husband, Geoffrey, as well. Surprisingly, Almásy takes at least partial responsibility for this – it was his own foolish love after all which stoked Geoffrey’s jealously and drove him to an elaborate murder-suicide via biplane.

Minghella appropriately uses a huge canvas for the German invasion of Cairo, seeing the Nazis descend upon the city in parachutes.
An oppressive overhead shot of Caravaggio’s torture, framed between the bars of his confinement.

Perhaps if there is any salvation to be found, it is in the end of this devastating war, as Americans parade through the streets in tanks proclaiming victory. For Almásy though, there is nothing left for him in this world. The morphine overdose that Hana administers is a merciful act, and as she reads Katharine’s final letter that was written while waiting in that cave before passing away, Minghella touchingly grants them death side-by-side, once again intercutting between both timelines. Just as Hana rides off through the green Italian countryside in these final moments, so too do we witness Almásy fly over Egypt’s rolling deserts, revelling in this land where all divisions of nation and culture fall away to boundless, sprawling freedom.

Both Hana and Almásy are liberated from the confines of the monastery in the final minutes, cutting between Italy’s stone streets and Egypt’s rolling dunes.

The English Patient is currently streaming on Stan and Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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