Review: The English Patient (1996)

Director/Screenwriter: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, Colin Fith
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexuality, some violence, and language
Release Dates: 12/6/96 (Theatres); 11/30/16 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours, 42 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Where to Watch: HBO
Oscars: Won–Picture, Supporting Actress (Binoche), Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Film Editing, Original Score; Nominated–Leading Actor (Fiennes), Leading Actress (Thomas), Adapted Screenplay

The English Patient is the kind of romantic, sweeping epic that, were it made by or starring anyone less talented than those involved in the film, would’ve come across as overly cliche and laughable, even when it’s not supposed to be funny. Fortunately, this multiple Oscar winner is excellently done, and can be considered to be deserving of its numerous awards. While it is hardly the best Best Picture winner of all time [that I’ve seen] — in fact, it just barely makes the top 20 — it is a major cinematic achievement that must be seen at least once. 

Minghella successfully navigates between the present story and flashbacks, with hardly any reason to be confused when viewing one or the other. (Of course, it does help that in flashbacks, Ralph Fiennes appears as his typically handsome self, whereas later he is badly burned and near death). Some people who don’t agree with the film’s praises and accolades claim that it is boring, and while some scenes are slow and seemingly do very little, they [almost] all lead to a conclusion that makes sense and is, despite its tragic elements [no spoilers!], satisfying. 

The English Patient is, at its core, about a doomed affair between two very attractive British people and the characters whose fates are irrevocably intertwined with theirs. Fiennes is clearly the main character, so I have no issue with him being nominated in the lead category here; he has never been so expressive and charming as he is here, a decade before he becomes Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort. His chemistry with Thomas is so incredible that when they do engage in the affair, you actually root for them, and don’t feel as bad as she should for the cheated-on spouse (in this case, an underused Colin Firth). 

And, we can’t forget Juliette Binoche, in an Oscar-winning role, as the French nurse who cares for Fiennes’ character in his dying days. He tells her, and random occupant Willem Dafoe (always great), the story of his love affair — but it’s in pieces, as his memory isn’t all there. I’m not sure Binoche’s role was Oscar-worthy, but it certainly is memorable, as she ends up being an extremely important part of the story. Thomas clearly was mis-categorized in the leading category, as she is only seen in flashbacks. That said, she is truly great, and it is a shame that this is her only nomination thus far. 

The film is gorgeously shot, and certainly made me want to travel to those exotic landscapes. The attention to period detail, including costumes and set design, is impressive, making the central love story all the more sumptuous and believable. That all said, I wished some scenes had been cut shorter, as the movie is nearly 3 hours long (not always a bad thing, though). It seems melodramatic and predictable at times, but, like I said, because the performers are so talented, the film veers away from soap opera territory.