Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth
Written by: Anthony Minghella, based on Michael Ondaatje's novel
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, some violence and language
Running Time: 160
Date: 11/06/1996

The English Patient (1996)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Losing Patients

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are several kinds of movies based on novels. The first (and best) kind are films like The Godfather and Jaws that transcend the novels and become cinema. Another kind peacefully co-exist with the literature, like Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Yet another kind (the worst) wears the novel on its sleeve like a badge. It pretends to be "important" cinema that comes with its own pre-accepted pedigree.

Films in this category include the Merchant-Ivory films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day). People convince themselves that this is high art, and grand filmmaking, when in many ways, it's just a giant book-on-tape. The English Patient is one of these.

The flip side of the coin is that these kinds of films usually feature excellent acting and dialogue, and that's because the characters and dialogue were written by actual writers and not Hollywood hacks. The English Patient features Ralph Fiennes (in flashback) as a mapmaker of mixed background who loves the desert and explores caves looking for cave drawings. He falls for his partner's wife, Kristin Scott Thomas, a tough woman who handles the desert as well as any man. The story is told after he crashes and burns in an airplane. (His melted face was done by Jim Henson's creature workshop.) The lovely Juliette Binoche plays a sexy nurse in 1944 who takes care of him and wears skimpy sun dresses and slightly mussed hair. He has a scrapbook full of clippings that tells his story. Willem Dafoe plays a character whose thumbs were cut off. Dafoe's character and a romance between Binoche and a bomb squad character seem to be added on for no apparent reason.

The movie is directed by Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) and looks beautiful, in a calculated kind of way that never catches fire. It made me think of Lawrence of Arabia several times, and two reviews I read afterward also mentioned Lawrence of Arabia. It doesn't compare, though, and I found myself wishing I was watching David Lean's 1962 movie instead.

If you can convince yourself that this is an "important" movie, then go see it. I, on the other hand, have little use for a movie like this. Look for it to win Best Picture in April, then collect dust with movies like Out of Africa and Gandhi.

DVD Details: I couldn't have said it any better today, eight years later, and I was dead-on in my Oscar prediction besides. Is there anyone today who really believes that The English Patient deserved to win instead of Fargo? For those who do, this two disc DVD set comes with two audio commentary tracks, one by Minghella and one by Minghella with producer Saul Zaentz and original author Michael Ondaatje. Disc two comes with the usual batch of documentaries and featurettes, plus a "Master Class" with Minghella and deleted scenes. It comes with two sound mixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and DTS 5.1 Surround, plus optional Spanish and French subtitles (not Enlgish?). The picture has been mastered in 1.85-to-1 widescreen. The whole package retails for $29.99. I'm getting sleepy already.

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