Beautifully shot over sweeping landscapes, The English Patient is a poetic adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same name. While I haven’t read the book, it seems you don’t need to in order to appreciate the film. It’s all past and present melding together in a layered depiction of a dying man’s memory. Remembering a doomed love, remembering himself, and waiting to die.
It’s tragic and warm at the same time, if that makes any sense. As we look back with him on his past, the moments of nostalgia are touching even if we don’t yet know what they mean. This is a puzzle that’s put together slowly, but by bit. Its beginning is ambiguous, and then we’re propelled from the start to nearly the end of World War II to our English Patient of the title. From his present we look back through his past, to piece together the unanswered questions of the introduction.
Juliette Binoche is beautiful as the war-battered Hanna. A Canadian nurse, she’s lost everyone she ever loved to the war, and they progressively fall away from her as she meets them. “I’m in love with ghosts” she says, explaining her draw to the War’s wounded. As with every performance I’ve seen her in, Binoche is innocence and hope in a captivating package, tightly bound, in this case, by misfortune. Her wounds are evident and seethe through every moment she’s on screen.
Ralph Fiennes as Count Laszlo de Almásy is mysterious and intriguing. This is pre-injury, naturally. Before his plane crash, he’s a man of the world. Hard as stone on the outside, he seems impossible to read or penetrate. There’s a peculiar intrigue about him that’s difficult to explain, but that’s alluring all the same. Even if his behavior does manage to border on abusive at times. He winds up being appropriately portrayed by Fiennes as passionate and consumed by Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
After his accident, and his depiction at the end of the war as the wounded supposedly English patient, he’s tormented. No longer willfully closed off, his wounds have removed his control on the matter. Parts of his life are fickle and unclear, while others torment him day and night. Revisiting those moments seems to bring closure and clarity to an unchangeable tragedy of love and life lost.
Kristin Scott Thomas’s Katharine is all steel and grace. Poised from the moment she sets foot on the screen, she’s constantly perfectly polished and never misses a beat. She’s intelligent and strong, which seems to be much of the appeal to Fiennes’ Count. Thomas plays Katharine with cold calculating control that speaks volumes to the character herself.
The only major regret I have about watching this film when I did is that it was done in a rather impaired state. I was taking my typhoid vaccine, Vivotif, at the time, preparing to leave for my tour of Southeast Asia. The unfortunate side effects consisted of a borderline migraine that lasted me over 24 hours. I did my best to stay awake and alert through the film, and did a pretty good job. I could appreciate its mystery, romance, and trauma. I could even appreciate its execution. But the full impact wasn’t in tact. It’s still a remarkable film, and a tremendous love story. I’ll just have to give it another go around when I’m in the country and not in agony.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on February 25, 2013.