Classic Film Review: The English Patient (1996)

And the Oscar Goes to:

The English Patient, 1996

Directed by: Anthony Minghella

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, Jurgen Prochnow


Step forward Colin Firth: the first actor/actress to appear in three Best Picture-winning films at the Oscars (The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient); however his time as the sole actor/actress to achieve that shall end very soon.

The English Patient, adapted from the novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, is the tale of a tragic love story between Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes, The Hurt Locker) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour), albeit being told through flashbacks by Count Laszlo as a critically burned man towards the end of the Second World War, who initially struggles to remember his own name but soon begins to remember his past. While Count Laszlo retells his story they are joined by an odd group of people, including David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe, Platoon), who knows of Count Laszlo, and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a bomb-disposal expert.

Through the flashbacks we are introduced to Katharine and her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech), as they are in the desert on a mapping expedition. Incidentally, as was the case in Shakespeare in Love, the protagonist is suddenly infatuated with the partner of Colin Firth’s character. The flashbacks are very well-placed within this film: at times they switch back-and-forth rather quickly between past and present, and others each time period is afforded sufficient time to tell their story. This editing and direction is very good, and they are paced well enough to maintain each story through a film spanning over two-and-a-half hours.

Not surprising seeing its cast list, the acting in this film is very well executed. Two men in this film have appeared each in three Oscar winning films (the second person will be revealed with Schindler’s List), and this was not Willem Dafoe’s first Oscar winning film. But, despite all those big names, the only acting award went to Juliette Binoche, as she deservedly took home the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal as Hana, the Hungarian nurse looking after the burned Count Laszlo.

As well as the acting, the music in this film is perfect. It beautifully matched the plot events, be it the background music or the piano playing and sounds from the characters, everything works and blends well together. However, while it has fine acting and a soundtrack, it’s a little unfortunate for the plot to appear, at times, quite slow and drawn out. As aforementioned, this film lasts over two-and-a-half hours, and that mostly centers around Count Laszlo and Katharine’s love affair, with a few other minor plot points occurring between both past and present and their relationship, for want of a better word, isn’t crazy enough or interesting enough to really be gripping enough to last that time. While they certainly needed time to be built up and ended, everything in this film seems to be afforded time, which slows the pacing of it right down.

One slight benefit from a slow build is the emotional impact it causes. Knowing their love story is tragic from the start, the way it eventually ends is very sad, and this is completely contradicted by the joyfulness in the present as the war is declared over. Being able to easy transition from one emotional scene to the complete opposite shows how well this film was directed, as it flows seamlessly.

Despite featuring brilliant acting, a brilliant soundtrack and an emotional wartime story unlike often seen, The English Patient is unfortunately a slow-burner and, at times, it seems like this could have been trimmed ever so slightly. There isn’t enough happening with their relationship, aside from getting together, being together and abruptly ending, to be able to withstand the time limit, and in the present Willem Dafoe’s arc and the romance between Kip and Hana isn’t, ironically, afforded enough time for it to merit too much emotional interest. A finely put-together movie, but with its flaws.


Plot: * *     Acting: * * * *     Writing: * * *     Presentation: * * * *

Overall Rating: * * * ¼


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