Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Retrospective: The English Patient (1995)

This is a new column that I am starting with this post. Instead of reviewing only new films, I intend to write about older films; films I like, some are popular; others overlooked or forgotten. These are good films, or at least, I think so. Do give your feedback as to what you think of this.

Film-making is a collaborative effort. The writer conceives the film and gives it a skeletal structure in the form of the script. The production designer, the costume designer and the actors together bring the story to life and the cameraman capture it on film. At post-production, the editor takes these disjointed visuals and weaves them into a coherent narrative. The composer provides greater emotion and meaning to the film through his compositions. The director helms the affairs by coordinating all of the above and bringing his vision of the story to life on celluloid. Finally, there is an army of technicians, assistants and others working furiously to make their works possible. No major film is a one man show. However, this collaborative nature is often overlooked when evaluating a film.

The English Patient, in the year of its release, swept the Oscars with an astounding 9 awards; for good reason. It is a film I have seen and seen again several times over the years; and it is one of those rare films that gets better with every viewing. Few films offer a better example of collaborative film-making than this.

To say that The English Patient was a difficult film to make would be making an understatement. Based on the complex (and celebrated) novel written by Michael Odaantje, it is a sprawling epic spread over 7-8 years with several jumps, back and forth, in the narrative. It has two major love stories as its base with countless little subplots and details to fill the canvas, each giving invaluable insight into the characters. It was a writer’s and editor’s worst nightmare. With its elliptical narrative of the film (it starts and closes with the same scene of a plane flying in the air), the editor claims to have made at least 40 time transitions in the film on the editing table while maintaining consistency in the narrative. When seen as a whole, the film is a remarkable achievement in editing, a department that is often denied its due credit.

Even if one were to overlook the difficulties of craft that the film posed, logistically also, it was a nightmare. 20th Century Fox was to initially produce the film. However, they backed out at pre-production due to casting issues and it seemed for a while that the film would not be made. Miramax stepped in to save the film. However, it was to be shot on a tight budget and the producer Saul Zaentz put $ 6,000,000 of his own money to fund the film. Tourists stood in as extras due to lack of funds. The first draft of the script to final cut took four long years. It was a labour of love for all the people involved in the film. The results were for all to see.

The plot: a mysterious man thought to be English who has been burnt beyond recognition comes under the care of the nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). He is dying and they find shelter in a partially destroyed Italian church near the end of World War II. Hana is afraid to love anyone as she fears she would lose them to the War. She is haunted by ghosts from the past. Her fears are tested when she meets Kip (Naveen Andrews), a young Indian soldier who she instantly feels attracted to.

The patient, she learns is Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian Count who was a part of an international map making team in North Africa in the pre-war years. He got into a torrid, passionate affair with a colleague’s wife, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Now, at the end of the War, a former spy Caravaggio (Willem Defoe) is looking for Almasy for betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis which led to his capture and torture. Who is Almasy, really? Did he betray Allied secrets? What happened to Katherine?

The English Patient is an epic love story; one you rarely get to see these days. If the perfect epic romance is ever made, I suspect it will closely resemble this one. What is remarkable, though, is that the reason why the film works so well is the collaboration of certain very specific people. It isn’t just the script or the performances or the direction. At each stage of filmmaking, effort has gone into the film and these efforts together help make the film what it is. The script does a remarkable job of adapting the book into a complex but fulfilling film. The sprawling length of the film actually serves the story exceedingly well as the runtime is used well to develop the characters and their relationships, in both the stories.

The look of the film is perfect; the costumes, the production and last, but not least, the camerawork. The loneliness of the desert and the quiet Italian countryside is beautifully captured on film. The detailing in the costumes and the art work is breathtaking to behold. A good deal of research has gone into the film with many of characters and settings being based in historical facts.

The performances are, of course, superlative. Kristin Scott Thomas was cast after she wrote a letter to Minghella saying “I am K in your film” (a reference that people who have seen the film or read the book will understand). The studios wanted Demi Moore instead and it is hard to imagine a worse casting decision. As Katherine, Kristin Scott Thomas brings a rare mix of passion and enigma which is intoxicating. It is not difficult to see why anyone would fall in love with her. Ralph Fiennes gives a deep, powerful and resonating performance as the Count, a man who knows five languages but doesn’t speak much. Juliette Binoche is lovable as the young Hana and brings out the vulnerability of her character exceedingly well. Defoe is fantastic as Caravaggio, as always.

However, this film would not be half as good if it wasn’t for the lilting score provided by Gabriel Yared. One of the great original soundtracks in my opinion, the score is influenced by American, Arab and European music and lends amazing depth and poignancy to the film at several moments. It would be worthy to watch the film again simply to note the music at specific places.

At the helm of all this of course, is Anthony Minghella who brings the efforts of all of these people together and with his vision creates one of the great love stories of our time. The English Patient is a powerful film that evokes that sense of romance in a way few films have. On each viewing, a long time after the film is over, the words spoken by Katherine remain in my mind:

"We die, we die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we have hidden in...We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men."

A film for every movie lover. And every romantic. 

Trivia about the film is available (and sourced from) here.


  1. You should talk to Anupama about this. She has rather trenchant views on the film and the book. :)

  2. Will do. But, out of curiosity, is it good trenchant or bad trenchant? :)