Sunday, March 22, 2015

1996 - The English Patient

After three weeks away in Australia, my darling wife and child return to LA on Monday. While that will do wonders for my emotional well-being, I suspect it will also mean an end to this notable streak in blog posts. I'll cram one more movie in before they return, but I may not get a chance to write about it immediately. We shall see...

The Academy's choice is up next in our look at the Best Picture nominees of 1996...

The English Patient
Anthony Minghella
Anthony Minghella
(based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje)
Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, Jürgen Prochnow, Kevin Whately
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
9 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Binoche)

In the war-torn Italian countryside near the end of World War II, nurse Hana (Binoche) tends to a severe burn victim (Fiennes) with an English accent and a horrible case of amnesia. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that our English patient is actually László de Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer who was helping to map the Sahara for the Royal Geographical Society in the months leading up to the war. The expedition is joined by English couple Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Firth and Scott Thomas), but during one of Geoffrey's many absences, Almásy and Katharine begin an affair, which to say the least, causes emotions to run high for everyone involved.

It's not difficult to understand why the Academy bestowed its top honour on The English Patient. It's exactly the sort of epic they love: romance, danger, sweeping landscapes. With a tight script, spectacular visuals and expressive performances, it truly is an example of filmmaking at its finest. That said, it may not be to everyone's taste. While it would be hard to ignore the extraordinary artistry that writer/director Anthony Minghella has crafted, I could certainly understand if it didn't strike a chord with all who see it. Maybe I'm even talking about myself here. I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint why exactly, but I can't shake the feeling that I didn't love this film as much as I should have, considering what a brilliant accomplishment it is. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, but even that seems unfair somehow because I really don't have anything bad to say about the film. It's almost as if I'm trying to convince myself that I didn't like it, when the truth of it is that I actually found it incredibly entertaining on almost every level. Human brains are fickle indeed.

As potential validation of its brilliance, it swept the awards on Oscar night, winning nine in total. Not too surprising since its costume and set design featured both period and foreign elements, two predictors of Oscar success. And where Fargo's cinematography was assisted by blankets of white snow, The English Patient exploits its blankets of yellow sand to exquisite advantage.

The cast, too, are exceptional, many of them using this film as a stepping stone to even greater things. Ralph Fiennes is solid as the charming yet stubborn adventurer who, when suffering from third-degree burns, looks uncannily like another heavily made-up Fiennes character. I also immensely enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas, who is very fluid and available as the emotionally torn lover. Earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Juliette Binoche has the purest heart in the film, although there was perhaps one too many sudden moments of bursting into tears. The always-watchable Colin Firth is as affable as ever (until his final moments, of course). And that's a pre-Lost Naveen Andrews (pictured) as the shirtless, luscious-haired bomb defuser.

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