The English Patient is a romance set in the World War II era. In the film, a severely wounded man relives a romance that took place in the opening days of the war. Meanwhile, he is cared for by a headstrong nurse who suffers from her own memories.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies and Shine. In addition to Best Picture, The English Patient also won Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Binoche), Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music - Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound.
The titular hero of this movie, Count Laszlo de Almásy, played by Fiennes, is not actually English. And although he claims to have experienced amnesia, he relives, quietly, the vivid memories of his life before the war, before his disfigurement, when he was hale, hearty, and in love with the wrong woman.
As his nurse, Hana (Binoche) cares for him, making a refuge out of a bombed out Italian villa, Almásy recalls the moments that led him to where he is today, and in particular, the moments that make him want to forget who he is.
Ironically, the minute we see him in a flashback, he becomes less interesting. A dashing pilot with the requisite bomber jacket and rapier-like wit, he could be the leading man of any 1940s movie. The moment he glances at his buddy's wife, Katharine (Thomas), over the campfire, you know that he will pursue her until his doom. It only remains to discover the details.
When I first watched this film, after my first marriage ended in divorce, I found it cloying. Nothing is more annoying to me than a movie that tries to be a tear-jerker but does not earn it. I had hoped that, upon rewatching the movie, now that my life circumstances have changed, I might appreciate it more. Sadly, it was not to be. This time, however, I was able to pinpoint why.
Unlike the previous year's winner, Braveheart, which claimed to be little more than an action movie with an historical context, The English Patient aspires to do more. You sense the director wanted it to be an "important" film: he wanted to imbue his characters with nuance, the plot with intrigue, and the story with resonance. Yet, the film offers little more than short-hand: with a soft-focus flashback scene with warm lighting indicating romance, for example. Almásy's memories are suffused with gold light, but there is little warmth between the characters. Whether that is due to the artificial dialogue or the lack of chemistry between Fiennes and Thomas, it's hard to say.
By contrast, Hana is a much more interesting character. This is a woman who values beauty and yet patches holes in the stairs with books from the villa's shelves. Practical yet romantic, Hana recalls only flashes of her own doomed loves. Unfortunately for the viewer, this is not her film. If it had been, the movie might have surpassed cliche and become the nuanced masterpiece it tries so hard to be.
While this film did deserve the technical awards it received, it fails to achieve the masterpiece status that the director clearly desired.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
It's possible to make a beautiful film that nonetheless lacks beauty.