Friday, April 1, 2011

#39 The English Patient (1996)

The English Patient (1996)

"You're in love with him, aren't you? Your poor patient. You think he's a saint because of the way he looks? I don't think he is."

Since I have started this list, I have seen a great number of good old movies. Films such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Psycho, and the like are films which to me just exude brilliance. They are the types of films that you know are going to be stunningly excellent from the moment the opening credits show, and not just because of its reputation. It’s really hard to explain, but for me, I can just feel the greatness of the film coming off the screen, and as I’m watching the movie I intuitively know that I am watching one of the greatest movies of all time. This has really only happened a few time; the aforementioned Casablanca, Citizen Kane, as well as Kubrick movies such as 2001, or others such as A Bridge on the River Kwai and Seven Samurai. This hasn’t been true of every movie on the list. Although I absolutely adored movies like The Princess Bride, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Planet of the Apes, I just didn’t get that sense. Although the number of “modern” movies off the list which I have watched has been rather low, one thing I have come to notice from watching movies off the list as well as from personal experience, I really haven’t gotten that “great movie” feel that the above listed movies do. It’s a shame, and I soon was beginning to feel as though they just don’t make movies the same way, that is, until I saw this movie.

The movie opens with a man flying a biplane in the desert. A woman is sitting in the passenger seat. He flies over a German 88 and is shot down. His burning corpse is later pulled from the wreckage of the plane by some North African Berbers who later put something on him to lessen his burns. We then turn to a woman, Hana, who is serving as a nurse in the army during World War II. We follow her around for awhile while she administers to wounded soldiers. Over the course of this exposition, we learn that the man she loves is killed, followed soon after by her best friend. She soon after becomes depressed, and vaguely suicidal. After some time, the division she is traveling with wants to move forward, but Hana doesn’t think the dying patient she is tending to, the pilot who was shot down at the beginning of the film, is capable of making the trip. As such, she decides to stay behind with her patient, in order to make his last days as comfortable as possible. Begrudgingly, the officer in charge of the division allows it, and Hana and her English patient get settled into an abandoned Italian villa. The rest of the movie revolves around the English Patient, as he remembers his past. We learn that he was once not actually an Englishman, but a Hungarian nobleman and archaeologist, named Laszlo. He was working on an international dig in North Africa prior to World War II. He and his crew are joined by an English couple, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. In the beginning it seems that Katharine and Laszlo do not get along at all, but after some time, just like any film pair who initially hates each other, they fall in love. The next hour or so of the film talks about Katharine and Laszlo’s tryst. What’s excellent about these scenes is that they are not night and day; Katharine still loves her husband Geoffrey, and so there’s a nice bit of conflict throughout this second act of the film. At the same time as Laszlo is remembering all of this, all is not peaceful at the villa, as Hana and Laszlo are joined by a Canadian soldier and scrounger, David, who has been sent to the villa to keep the two of them company. They are also joined by a bomb squad, led by a Sikh named Kip, who have been traveling through the Italian countryside disarming bombs, booby traps, and mines left over by the Germans. These characters serve for the most part as the comedic relief to the drama of Laszlo’s story, and the sheer charm of these characters and their antics help to alleviate a great deal of tension. Also during this time there is a subplot of a romance which occurs between Hana and Kip. Things start looking bad though, as we are taken back to Laszlo’s story. Katharine’s husband is beginning to become suspicious of Lazlo and Katharine’s affair, and begins trying to find out the truth. Katharine, worried over the implications of their affair becoming public, ends her relationship with Laszlo. Laszlo is devastated. Additionally, inevitably, war breaks out. Because of the fact that the archaeological society was working in and mapping the North African desert, which would come to be of key strategic import to the British War Effort, and because the archaeological society was international in nature, namely that it was manned by Germans, the society is broken up, maps claimed by the British, and all of Laszlo’s beautiful research is for naught. So Laszlo returns to his dig-site with his crew one last time to pack up his things and move out. Geoffrey is supposed to fly Laszlo back to civilization, but he’s drunk (I think, it was kind of unclear), and so he botches his landing and crashes in the desert, dying immediately. Katharine, who was flying in the backseat, survives, and Laszlo carries her from the wreckage and into a cave, but she’s badly hurt, and if she doesn’t get help soon, she’s going to die, so Laszlo needs to walk across the desert to find help. Meanwhile, Hana and Kip continue with their romances, and there are a few tense moments where Kip almost gets killed by a bomb. Later, the war ends, and Kip’s best friend is killed by a bomb while Kip is having sex with Hana. He blames himself and breaks off their romance. At the same time, Laszlo’s life is finally drawing to a close, and we learn that the Canadian, David, is not all that he says he is (unsurprisingly), and was actually a reporter in Africa, and friend of Geoffrey’s. He lost his finger, he alleges, because Laszlo is actually a German spy, and so he is determined to kill Laszlo himself. Finally, Laszlo reveals the truth. He managed to walk across the Sahara, incredibly without dying, and gets to a British military base. While he’s begging for help, it’s revealed that he’s a German, and so is put on a train to be deported. His pleas go unheard because he’s a German. Determined to save the love of his life, he breaks free from his railed prison, and escapes to the Nazis, where he sells information in exchange for a plane and medical supplies so he could save Katharine. He gets back to her, but she has died. He takes her into his plane, and takes off for home, planning to bury her, but is shot down by Nazis, bringing us to the beginning of the movie. After hearing this, David decides not to kill him, but Hana, who has now heard the full tale, and upon the begging of Laszlo, administers a lethal dose of painkillers, finally putting Laszlo out of his misery. The movie ends with the rest of the crew now parting ways.

The acting in this movie is absolutely superb. Ralph Fiennes gives a stunning performance as Count Laszlo. He’s great in the beginning of the movie as a snarky know-it-all, who doesn’t seem to have any emotion or compassion but for his work, he’s great in the middle of the film as he seems to abandon everything for Katharine, and he’s just absolutely stunning as a mortally ill patient who has lost everything. Everything he does is filled with emotion, and by the end you can really feel the weight of the burden he is carrying as he hides the truth about himself and his past. Kristin Scott Thomas is good enough as Katharine. While her performance wasn’t as truly awe-inspiring as I think Fiennes’ was, she was charming, and she did capture Katharine’s carefree, spirited attitude well. Much better in my mind was Juliette Binoche, who played Hana. Hana’s character is a multifaceted one. She’s still a young woman, full of life, very free-spirited, in a way very similar to Katharine. However at the same time, she’s a character who at this point has lived through a lot of traumatic moments in her life, something which she constantly has eating away at her, but something at the same time which she feels compelled to ferret away. Finally, she’s a very matronly character, one who sees problems in life, and goes out of her way to try to fix those problems. Juliette Binoche does a phenomenal job of portraying this complex character, and doing it in a very compelling, and most importantly for me, a very charming way. She is simply fun to watch for me. This movie also saw excellent performances by Willem Dafoe who played David, and the recent Oscar Winner Colin Firth as Geoffrey. I think my favorite supporting role though, was Naveen Andrews as Kip, the Sikh. After I got over the awesome factor of seeing Sayid in something else (still awesome), he gives a fantastic performance. The thing I like particularly is that there really isn’t much to this character. He’s basically supposed to be written as a B romance to Laszlo and Katharine’s A. But Andrews really brings such a charm to the role, he’s just plain fun to watch, and made what could have been a blasé subplot, into a very compelling piece of cinema, and at the end of the day was an excessively good performance.

As for the direction, it was also good. Cinematography was good, a number of fantastic shots. What I liked more though was that the cinematographer was well aware of where he was, and got some absolutely stunning shots, making fun of the stark and beautiful Sahara desert. I also loved the writing. Author Michael Ondaatje and Screenwriter Anthony Minghella (also the director) does an excellent job telling the story, especially with the pacing. I like the way the opening shots begin out of context, confusing, and incoherent, and I like that over the course of the movie it all comes full circle, making for an excellent catharsis when that opening shot is brought back, but with the context that brought the scene about. I also really liked the way the film used the Hana scenes as a comedic relief, helping to keep the film palatable through the mentally draining, and oft depressing scenes that come to be Laszlo’s story. It was one of the most effective uses of comedic relief I’ve seen in a long time. Another thing I liked about this movie was the way director/writer Minghella plays with preconceptions and assumptions he knows the viewer will make. He’s well aware of cliché and plays with the audience’s heartstrings by setting up clichés but averting them at the end. One great example of this is when Kip is sent away to diffuse a bomb towards the end of the movie. Minghella does a great job with the set up of this scene, first foreshadowing Kip’s death with ominous words of warning from Hana, and by playing around with the tank and the circumstances of the bomb. This sets the cliché aware audience on the notion that Kip is not going to make it through the scene alive. At this point Minghella knows he has you, and plays with you some more, building tension to a fever pitch. Then, suddenly he releases the tension by showing that Kip didn’t actually die. It was a very effective scene. Perhaps even more effective than this are the last few scenes of the movie, when the full extent of the tragedy of the story is realized, and then, finally, and especially, Laszlo’s death. These are some of the saddest scenes I have ever seen in a movie, very nearly bringing me to tears. All in all, it was just perfect, a fantastic movie.

As I said previously, there are some movies where you can just tell that it’s a great movie. From my personal experience, I get this much more with older films than I do newer ones. Sure you can say that this has to do with nostalgia, or hype, or what have you, but whatever the rate, it’s there for me. The English Patient is the first time I’ve seen a (relatively) modern movie and actually got that sense of greatness that I’ve gotten in the past, a sense that I’ve seen something greater than myself, a movie that stayed with me for long after I’d left the library. I have always heard there is no such thing as a perfect movie, but this is as damn close as you can get: great acting, great directing, great writing, great pacing, and an extremely moving movie. I loved this movie, I don’t know how many different ways I can say it. Why is this movie on the list, though? Just because it was a great movie. Ignore the awards, ignore the hype - ignore all of that. I don’t consider this movie to be on the list because of any specific actor or director of note. It may have some influence, but I am not aware of it. This is just a great movie, simple as that. I would without thinking twice place it up among the likes of Citizen Kane or Casablanca any day of the week, and that is why The English Patient belongs on the list.