Written by: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews
Tragic white romances occurring in foreign lands has been a trademark for several Academy Award-winning films as it combines familiar stories but in environments, most people do not get to experience. A formula that when done well can reach extraordinary results. While I would not consider The English Patient to be a triumph of this particular style of story, it certainly has some genuine moments of grand filmmaking that does not get made anymore.
Hana (Juliette Binoche) serves as a nurse for the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War II when she begins to care for a mysterious and badly burned patient (Ralph Fiennes). With more time she spends with him, she learns more about how he got these injuries and the tragic love story he was wrapped into.
Told in a present perspective along with flashbacks to the patient’s time before the accident, The English Patient tells a story of love along with how war may not be the best time in which to find it. With Hana and the patient, Almásy, being the main perspectives of these stories, they both share in the beauty of finding love in another person while also dealing with the ramifications involved. By the time the film concludes an audience member will either feel as if the grand love stories filled the soul or thanked the lord it mercifully concluded after 162 minutes.
The runtime of The English Patient certainly will be a detractor for many, especially when seeing everything it encompasses in being a love story. By the end, I’m certainly of the opinion that it did not need such an elongated runtime, but elements of it work so well for me to land positively on it overall. Certainly, its strongest features come from the technical aspects, which highlight not only the environment but the impact it has on the main characters. Specifically, in Almásy’s storyline, it shows a side of World War II not typically shown in film. Not occurring on the beaches of France or Nazi-occupied Germany, this movie shows the wide breadth of what made this a world war. Taking place on the Egyptian-Libyan border, it captures the majestic beauty of the Sahara desert while also showing what makes it a wasteland if abandoned in it. This serves as the backdrop for the love affair Almásy had with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). The lighting and cinematography illuminate the drab spaces of the interior to demonstrate how these two could find and fall into each other’s arms. This side of the story contains most of the wonder where the present with Hana embraces all of the drabness.
With the burned Almásy and Hana, they stay in an Italian monastery, as she dedicates her time to treating him for what will most likely be his final days considering the injuries he has incurred. The contrast between the two environments demonstrates plenty and not just in the color palette. While plenty happened in Cairo, Almásy and Katharine lived a life of privilege when in the presence of the English officers occupying the space. There they attended elegant dinners and dances and the same could not be said for where Almásy and Hana find themselves in the present timeline. The past resembled opulence while the present brought someone like Almásy to the forefront of what this war presented for most soldiers out on the front line.
Assembled in this cast are some of the finest actors the 90s had to offer and still find plenty of success even today. Ralph Fiennes came off his scarily effective success in Schindler’s List and portrayed the dashing Almásy. He certainly makes the case for why Katherine would cheat on her husband for him. Fiennes and Thomas develop strong chemistry to make this love story something worth caring about considering there’s a world war occurring right behind them. The present timeline allowed Juliette Binoche to shine in a role that won her an Academy Award and rightfully so, as she represents the innocence trying to do good in this war. As the film displays, Almásy has made some terrible mistakes in his time during the war even to the point where you may question whether or not he’s a good guy. Binoche as Hana thus becomes the moral compass of the story and certainly succeeds in this supporting role.
While it would rank towards the bottom half of Best Picture winners in regard to quality, The English Patient has plenty one can fall in love with. It creates some spiraling and tragic romances to get wrapped into and presents a technical wonder for the eyes to feast on. Unfortunately, it ultimately never reaches its apex because of its exorbitant narrative length, which did not feel earned by the time the closing credits appeared on-screen.