Over the years, I have developed a love-hate relationship with “The English Patient” (1996). On one hand, I appreciate its epic grandeur and opulent images, but on the other hand, its characters leave me indifferent. The first time I saw the film, I was deeply bothered by the repercussions of the loving relationship between a Hungarian geographer, Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), and a married English woman, Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The attachment between the two has a callous undercurrent that represents the harsh side of infidelity. Perhaps, someone always gets hurt, which in this case is Katherine’s husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth), as a result of unfaithfulness, and the film depicts this complexity realistically. The Count and Katharine might be emotionally wrought characters given the context of their attachment to each other, but their coldness to external characters in their lives is brutally unsettling, and yet honest in its depiction.
Being the central focus of the story, the love angle is problematic in several parts. The Count and Katherine’s mutual attraction raises more questions. First I would ask, Is the attraction between them a mere case of infatuation? At least on the surface, that is the case. They meet on a couple of occasions, each realizing the magnetic attraction developing rapidly. But beyond this, their love affair is overly physical and never achieves an emotional high, as it has made to be. Of course, sex becomes an integral part of their relationship. All of this would have been fine had we seen the reasons why Katharine, in spite of being married, wants to have an affair with Count. Is she unhappy with Geoffrey, emotionally and physically? Does she feel disconnected in her marriage? The reasons are never apparent. As their relationship progresses to new heights, Katharine and the Count feel conflicted about their identities. Katherine starts to carry the guilt of her infidelity, which is natural considering the circumstances. But the Count’s character carries an irritating, angry undertone right from the onset that becomes increasingly obvious in the scenes with Katherine. The Count explains in one scene that he hates the idea of owning someone, and he despises the fact that Katherine belongs to another man.
Ms. Thomas looks breathtaking in some shots, but her character lacks the complexity to make it worth remembering. On the contrary, even if I didn’t connect with the Count’s character, I thought Fiennes was able to portray well the complexities of his character. Even though the love affair never expands emotionally beyond the routine bodily contacts, Fiennes comes out as the most effective of the two leads, especially when his character is in a dying state. The arrival of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) at an Italian monastery sheds light on a vital subplot in the film. As an avenging agent, Dafoe is as relentless and intense as ever, and his character is edgy and unpredictable at all times. Dafoe’s character produces a lot of “what-is-going-to-happen-next” moments that sustain our interest throughout. As the Count explains the reasons for his actions, we learn why he was forced to switch sides, after an unfortunate case of a mistaken identity. Friendship, loyalty, lust, and national identities are brought to the forefront. For the Count, the lines forming a national identity and demographics starts to blur. Nonetheless, Caravaggio finds a way to forgive the Count and accepts his past as a bad turn of events.
We also meet another character, Hana (Juliette Binoche), my favorite, who is a nurse at the monastery, taking care of the Count and other wounded soldiers. Like the Count, she is dealing with a past, specifically with the death of a dear one. Surely, Hana understands the Count’s emotional state, but beneath Hana’s surface personality we realize she is a troubled soul as well. When she develops a liking for Kip (Naveen Andrew), Hana fears that the War will again bring bad news. During tense times, Hana demonstrates the power of nursing, always putting on a brave and smiling face by being generous at all times, in spite of daily struggles. From a story perspective, Hana is the central character, as she acts as a doorway to the Count’s past. Binoche’s radiant face forms a key attribute of her character, and she aptly projects the dual nature of a nurse. For her performance, Binoche won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Director Anthony Minghella adapts the book of the same name by Michael Ondaatje faithfully to the screen. With a multilayered narrative, “The English Patient” is a complex book, since there is excessive information packed about the characters and their stories. The film, however, successfully projects the intricacies of the novel, and the end result has satisfying story elements. It is also at the monastery, the plot, through a series of flashbacks, switches between past and present events, making the film’s narrative nonlinear. Sometimes it is difficult to place the actual timelines of the events, but the subplots are linear, and as such, they act as time capsules, adding significant pieces to the narrative. With its grand shots set against a barren desert, Minghella’s direction reminds us of David Lean’s epic pieces “Dr. Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Human souls are separated by wild forces of Mother Nature, somehow succeeding in finding the strength to carry on that is mainly driven by love and passion. And that is a recurring theme in Minghella’s films.
“The English Patient” won a number of awards, notably receiving nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It is hard not to be impressed by its lavish production, and despite its long running time, “The English Patient” maintained my interest throughout, although not emotionally.
“The English Patient” arrives on Blu-ray in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, encoded through an AVC codec. The 1080p transfer is strong, with a healthy bit rate in the high 30 bps. The first thing that is striking about the transfer is the clarity and detail evident in each scene. Colors are bold and vibrant, making the film’s palette lively. The panoramic shots are beautiful, and the sandy landscapes look simply stunning. The detail and sharpness are consistent, although at times the close-ups are soft-looking. When they’re not soft, the close-ups reveal good detail, and flesh tones remain realistic and warm. In the nighttime scenes, there is a nice trace of grain, but the blacks are not solid enough. Finally, there is no trace of print damage like dust, specs, and other blemishes. Overall, this is a vast improvement over the DVD release.
Lionsgate has included a 5.1 DTS-HS Master Audio track for this release. “The English Patient” is mainly a talkative affair, so the movie is driven mainly by the front channels. The dialogue is crisp and clean and consistently audible. The surround channels are active during the flying scenes, and the bass is nicely balanced as well.
Lionsgate ports all the bonus features from the two-disc DVD edition set.
First, we get two audio commentary tracks, one with screenwriter/ director Anthony Minghella and a second one with author Michael Ondaatje and producer Saul Zaentz. Minghella, through several scenes, describes the process of how the book was translated for the screen and the challenges involved. Ondaatje talks about the book and his close relationship with the crew during the filming process.
The next two segments focus on Ondaatje and the script. First, “About Michael Ondaatje” focuses solely on Ondaatje’s work and his writing. Next, “From Novel to Screenplay” shows interviews with the cast. They discuss the book and the elements from the book that impressed them the most.
Up next, “The Formidable Saul Zaentz” is a two-minute short feature focusing on the film’s producer, following it with the real-life Fiennes character of the Count in “A Historical Look at the Real Count Almasy.” In addition, there is a ninety-minute series of technical featurettes in the form of cast interviews and segments titled “The Work of Stuart Craig” and “The Eyes of Phil Bray.” Minghella discusses the film’s deleted scenes in “Master Class with Anthony Minghella–Deleted Scenes.” Finally, there is a regular making-of featurette.
“Chicago Sun Times” critic Roger Ebert said in his review of “The English Patient”: “It’s the kind of movie you can see twice–first for the questions, the second time for the answers.” Upon my third viewing, I am still searching for answers. The film features impressive performances, marvelous cinematography, lavish production values, a deep story, and a superb narrative structure. But despite the positives, the movie’s characters left me emotionally detached from whatever was transpiring in their lives. Surely, this sweeping saga of love and pain needs to be seen at least once. The Blu-ray edition is a definite improvement in all aspects.