26 May 2009 | TheUnknown837-1
despite a few flaws, "The English Patient" proves itself as an enthralling modern-day epic with that same sweeping sense that made movies like "Lawrence of Arabia"
One of the most charming and, for me at least, the most powerful elements of Anthony Minghella's enthralling Best Picture-winner "The English Patient" is that, in the mid 90s, when Hollywood was in the initial stage of having lost its nerve for grand new projects, a film was created that brought back traces—very powerful traces—of the sweeping, wonderful majesty that crafted movies such as "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956). "The English Patient" contains very much of what made those films so powerful. It has that glorious feeling, a stretched running time that hardly seems long at all, and fascinating characters with pasts and stories.
"The English Patient", based on a novel by the same name by Michael Ondaatje, is like "The Godfather: Part II" (1974) in the sense of how it's constructed. It's a blending of two stories: the past and the present and it all revolves around the titular character: an English patient in the post years of World War Two. Ralph Fiennes plays the English patient, who has been scarred for life by a plane crash, and being taken care of in an isolated church by a single nurse played marvelously by Juliette Binoche. Apart from bonding with her raspy-voiced, troubled patient, Binoche comes to learn about his past when a stranger (Willem Dafoe) arrives and the two men appear to know each other.
That's just one of the two beautifully crafted stories that shape this film. The other one, told in flashback, is the patient's past, before he was scarred and dying in a bed. The story of the present mixed with the patient's past and his love affair that tragically changed his life forever.
To be blunt, "The English Patient" is a love story blended with a sweeping epic sensation and it blends magnificently. What I really admired about the love story between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas was how passionate, how obsessive, how enchanting it was shown on screen. Usually in love stories, such as Minghella's later "Cold Mountain" (2003), the romantic elements seem far more lustful than obsessive to me. Some of the love scenes feature elements that may tend to be associated more with lust than love, but still, because it is so well developed and not rushed and not exploited out of proportion, we can believe that there is a sure, true love between these characters. It reminded me a lot of "Vertigo" (1958) in how well the filmmakers and performers convinced us that these were two actual human beings who truly fell in love with each other.
Performances all around were great. I was especially enthralled by the performance by Juliette Binoche, who took home the Oscar for her performance the following year. I also liked Willem Dafoe playing the sort of cynical, questionable character that he's always quintessential at playing. And of course I can't leave out Fiennes and Scott Thomas and their portrayals of two very passionate lovers.
Despite my enormous enthusiasm for this epic, I would be dishonest if I were to describe it as a perfect film. There are two flaws that I cannot glance over. Number one, it is a little too long and the reason for this is my second complaint, there are a few unnecessary subplots. I was not enchanted or particularly interested with the second love story between Binoche and a bomb specialist played by Naveen Andrews. My research has led me to assume that this plot element comes from the original book and I'm sure it worked perfectly in there, but in the film, it just seems a little
distracting and the relationship between the two characters didn't fascinate me. I was far more interested by Fiennes character and his relationships with his two leading actresses.
Nevertheless, these two flaws are easily forgivable even if they do slow things down a bit. Those put aside, "The English Patient" is an extraordinary achievement of film-making. To me, it was sort of like an insane mix up between "Casablanca" (1942) and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), two remarkable and better films, and this effective blend proved to be well worth my time. It is a real shame that Anthony Minghella has left us. For he was a truly gifted filmmaker. This is all the evidence anybody needs.