4 November 2000 | Dodger-9
David Lean with laughs
Winner of nine Oscars and a shelf full of other awards, The English Patient is an epic in every sense of the word.
Three years before making The Talented Mr Ripley, Anthony Minghella delivered a mesmerising drama of huge proportions for a mere $20million. It may lose a lot on the small screen but the script still packs something of a wallop and will leave many blubbing into their cushions. A great cast - Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Willem Dafoe among them - provide more first class performances than you can shake a stick at and elegantly flesh out the tale of a hideously scarred central character, waiting for death.
The eclectic characters that come into contact with him are also nursing their own hurts and, thanks to an erratic narrative that flits between pre and post-World War Two, this tale unfolds so well, you may wish it would never end.
Fiennes delivers a measured performance as the eponymous, enigmatic character, Laszlo de Almasy; Scott Thomas is coolly elegant as his glacial lover, Katharine Clifton; while Juliette Binoche and Dafoe have rarely been better in their supporting roles.
There are many memorable images, such as the opening painting of a stick figure superimposed over the shifting dunes of the desert, the Daffodil yellow biplane soaring over the mountains and Fiennes' scarred character carried through the rain at the end of the war.
An intelligent adult film which never takes itself as seriously as the David Lean movies of yesteryear.
The scene where a character walks away during a movie screening is pure Brief Encounter - until they crack their head on scaffolding. It's touches such as this which make The English Patient all the more delicious a movie.
Although a bit of a bum-number, it definitely warrants the near-three hour running time.
It was a tough movie to get made given, as director Minghella says, that its star was burned beyond recognition in a bed, remembering things about Europe and the War, and it was to be directed by a film-maker who had never done anything on this scale before. But the cast was committed and, when the project appeared to have fallen through, never gave up.
Ralph Fiennes says: "I did have complete faith that it would sort itself out. The script was so extraordinary and brilliant that I couldn't accept that it wouldn't be made at some point."
Fiennes fell in love with the desert when they were filming in Tunisia. He found the hotel where they stayed, at an oasis in the south, dispiriting, but the desert itself was "hypnotic, wonderful and very moving. It is sort of ironic that it becomes a set. It is bigger than a set and you come in and stake your claim and you are framing bits of a desert which is so enormous and infinite and an extraordinary place." One of the problems with the production, aside from raising the budget, was shooting in the sand.
Every retake meant moving to a new location or resculpting the sand to make it look untouched by the size 10s of an international film crew. Minghella compared his problems to those of the late great David Lean whose epic, Lawrence of Arabia, this most resembles.
"Lean would shoot and then go 40 kilometres to find an untouched spot," he remarked during production. "It's no wonder he was found wandering in the desert."
Minghella cut his teeth on Inspector Morse and it's rather nice to see none other than Kevin Whateley among the supporting cast. Listen closely and you may even hear John Thaw's cries of "Lewis!" drifting across the dunes.