Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Torrid Affair In The Desert Is Just The Dry Heat Of The English Patient.

The Good: One or two character/acting moments, Decent plot structure, DVD Bonus features
The Bad: Pacing, Characters are largely unempathetic, Melodramatic acting
The Basics: Style takes precedence over substance with The English Patient, a film populated by unlikable characters whose story slowly unwinds without catharsis or purpose.

Knowing nothing about the movie, last year on Veteran’s Day, I popped in The English Patient as part of my Veteran's Day celebration. Compared to the other films in my cache - which had nothing to do with any wars - I figured it might be an interesting way to spend the federal holiday. Instead of anything remotely intriguing, though, I discovered quickly that The English Patient was a slow, dull love story set in the wake of World War II. More than just feeling bored, I was amused by my wife's reaction to the story. She was subjected to the movie with me and she oscillated between bored and swearing about "dumb blonde bimbos!" when the female protagonist, Katharine, began her repeated affairs on her husband.

I began to write how I was not surprised the movie won so many awards, but more surprising than the sheer number of awards The English Patient won is the fact so many people insist they stayed awake through the entire movie. The only reason I was able to was the fact my partner and I were doing a Mystery Science Theater type viewing of the film. The longer the movie went on, the more our sarcastic quips died down as lethargy overtook us. This is a poorly-paced movie and while The English Patient has its moments, it only has moments. The rest of the almost-three hour film is plodding and pedantic with no moral core and characters who are only peripherally likable.

In the years before World War II, a plane is shot down and the pilot is burned beyond all recognition. In Italy in October 1944, the pilot, covered in burned scar tissue, is being transferred by Allied medics when the convoy they are a part of hits a mine. One of the nurses, Hana, takes the wounded man to an abandoned building and ministers to him. Shortly after their arrival there, a thumbless thief named David arrives and takes up residence with the pair. He implies he knows the bedridden man and blames him for the loss of his thumbs. So, while Hana develops affection for a minesweeper clearing the roads of mines and living in the field outside her ruins, an interrogation of sorts goes on.

Count Lazlao's story is then told as the burned man begins to recall his past. Laszlo was part of the Royal Geographic Society and he was part of expeditions that were charting Northern Africa. As part of that, he meets Katharine, who is the wife of their expedition's financer. While her husband is away, Laszlo and Katharine bond, surviving things like a sandstorm together. By the time they return to civilization around Christmas of 1938, they are having a full-on affair. Slowly, the patient relays the story of how the affair ended and how David came to assume that Laszlo was a traitor to the Allies.

The English Patient is stylistically decent, but utterly boring. Director Anthony Minghella has a good eye for what looks good, including making things clear with minimal dialogue. So, for example, the convoy of explorers ends up in an accident when one man, who is in love with another man, makes an instinctive grab for his lover while still holding a steering wheel. Similarly, the love scenes between Laszlo and Katharine are well-shot and there are moments that are actually passionate.

As well, the film has decent make-up effects for Laszlo. The primary narrator is creepy looking and he is difficult to look at in his disfigured form. Similarly, the costumes are so well-done, they sometimes undermine the mood. The costume designer goes for realism, so things like undergarments are clearly intended to be practical not stylish and alluring. And when Laszlo tears Katharine's dress, it makes perfect sense that he would have to sew it afterward, whatwith there not being clothing stores on every corner. Stylistically, The English Patient looks and sounds good.

But that is about where my appreciation of the film ends. First, I have to side with my partner on the character issues. Katharine is a married woman when she lets Laszlo get closer to her and there is no good justification for their affair; it's not even terribly passionate. But The English Patient seems to be part of a whole series of films that people seem to overlook infidelity on the idea that the relationship involving it is somehow romantic. In The English Patient, the chemistry is just not there and Kristen Scott Thomas and lead Ralph Fiennes have no real sexual chemistry.

Fiennes, in fact, is supposed to be a dashing rogue as Laszlo, but most of his performance is just unsettling and cocky without any genuine charisma. The part does him no great service and when he is in make-up, not expected to trade on his looks, he performs vastly better than in the scenes where he is mobile and Hollywood good looking. Either way, Fiennes is upstaged at every moment by Willem Dafoe who plays the thief, Caravaggio. Dafoe has an amazing presence on screen and he outshines Colin Firth, Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.

Binoche, whose only other work I knew before this was Chocolat is remarkably stiff as Hana. Hana is mostly in the movie to witness Laszlo's story and have a pointless romantic subplot with Kip. When I saw Naveen Andrews in the credits and when he first appears as Kip, I was appropriately thrilled, but Kip has a supporting role and the romance between him and Hana is almost an afterthought. Andrews showed the potential to be as memorable as his character from Lost, but the story does not give him much to work with; his character is part of a distracting series of vignettes away from the main narrative. In fact, the most compelling moments with Kip have nothing to do with either Hana or the main narrative as he is called out to disarm a bomb.

Too much of the film is pointless digressions or unlikable characters behaving poorly. There is, frankly, enough of that in real life that I don't enjoy watching movies with characters who are scoundrels or buffoons.

On DVD, The English Patient comes with a rather thorough collector's edition. The main disc has the film with two different commentary tracks. There is a second disc with information on the author, featurettes on how the novel was made into the film and programs on the making of The English Patient. While usually I try to be thorough, I did not enjoy the source material enough to subject myself to these bonus features, so I would assume that only fans of the movie would enjoy them.

Fans of drama do not have to suffer through every slow-developing film to know what great human emotion is. The English Patient is one those who love deep, well-developed stories can easily pass on as it is slow and utterly pointless.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other period dramas, please check out my reviews of:
The Piano
The Red Violin
Memoirs Of A Geisha


For other film reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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