RogerBW's Blog

The English Patient 29 May 2022

1996 romantic drama, dir. Anthony Minghella, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas: IMDb / allmovie. As the final victory over Axis forces in Italy approaches, a nurse looks after a badly-burned mystery man in an abandoned monastery.

I haven't read the book, but apparently it has a lot of deep psychological consideration of its characters, and a fair bit to say about colonialism. The film, on the other hand, is a doomed tragic romance, framed by a doomed but slightly less tragic romance.

I didn't at all love this film, but it became very clear to me while watching it – capping a realisation I've been gradually coming to in the nearly a year I've been doing Ribbon of Memes – that there are virtues of film that are separate from the things I primarily value: I want character, static or developing, and narrative impetus to provoke the characters and be driven by their actions, and those things are largely absent here. On the other hand the filming is gorgeous, both of the landscapes and of the people, and the acting is pretty good too – I was especially impressed by Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews in the outer story, who while they aren't the super pretty people on the poster have rather meatier dramatic parts than the doomed lovers of the inner story, and make the most of them. (Andrews was in the depths of his alcohol and heroin habits at the time, and would apparently do a scene and then walk off-set to collapse; it may be that that contributes to the feeling of rigid self-control that he portrays here.)

In more minor parts, this was one of Colin Firth's first roles after the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice ("Darcy in a wet shirt") had made him the first choice for an English leading man, and he was determined not to get typecast; meanwhile a single scene for Jürgen Prochnow as an Nazi counterintelligence officer doesn't stretch him at all, but he lights up the screen with his enthusiasm.

And Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, both at this point reasonably experienced actors… are mostly just sort of there. We never really learn anything about their personalities except that they are in love with each other. She makes a dead set at him without obvious reason; he resists, without obvious reason, then gives in, ditto; she breaks up with him because she's getting cold feet about her husband finding out; he makes a drunken fool of himself, because he's allowed to have feelings and she isn't; she dies of a suicidal husband and him being stupid, and this is a Great Tragedy. But I was never drawn in to their story, never found in myself that feeling of vain hope that I get from my favourite books and films in which bad things happen, that things wouldn't take their obviously destined tragic path; the obviously destined tragic path is the point, just as it was in Truly Madly Deeply (again a script by the director), which was the film that drew Minghella to the attention of Saul Zaentz (who may have bought the film rights before the book was even published, or may have been presented with the idea by Minghella; accounts differ).

A good half of the Wikipedia plot synopsis takes place in the last 40-odd minutes of this two and a half hour plus film.

But it does at least have two lovely aeroplanes, a Tiger Moth and a Boeing-Stearman Model 75 (the latter new and mostly in military use, unlikely to have been in the hands of a civilian, but never mind). The big dramatic opening shot, of the Tiger Moth flying across the desert, struck me as looking a bit off in some way, and when it was repeated at the end (once we know what led up to it) I looked more closely: not only are the desert sand and the plane both perfectly in focus, betraying that the shot's been composited, there are clearly three light sources from different directions involved (one on the desert, one on the plane, and another one casting the plane's shadow on the desert). Was this really cheaper, was this really prettier, than just filming a plane over a desert? If that shot hadn't reeked so much of careful construction, or if it hadn't been used so proudly as the bookends of the film, I'd just have let it go; as it stands it actively distracted me from appreciating what I'd just seen.

In retrospect that seems like a good encapsulation of the whole film: very attractive, but always too blatantly a work of artifice for me to lose myself in the atmosphere.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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  1. Posted by Chris Bell at 11:56am on 29 May 2022

    What we used to call "smells of the lamp", which was one of my father's faintly-damning phrases about works of fiction. If it was an essay, he'd say "ten out of ten for effort" and leave it at that.

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