THE ENGLISH PATIENT swept through the Academy Awards for 1996, taking nine wins of its twelve nominations. While it wasn’t a stellar year, this did deserve each of its prizes: it’s a sweeping, beautifully produced, sensitively acted, lovingly realized epic. Directed and scripted by Anthony Minghella, it involves numerous detailed characters in multiple storylines and locations, weaving back and forth over a seven-year period more than forty times, through 162 minutes.
Measured, dense but always arresting, tragedy and brutality mixed with great beauty and wit, in the tapestry-like flow of a rich historical novel, redolent of memories from a time when living was so compressed that it became almost hallucination. Did that happen? To me? Like that?
Minghella did adapt from a novel: it took him four years to fix a cinema form onto Michael Ondaatje’s book that covers 1938 to 1945 in North Africa and Italy, drawing in people from England and Germany, a Hungarian, a French-Canadian, an Italian-Canadian, a Sikh. A romance set in a war story.
Soldiers, nurses, a thief, bomb defusing, stunning desert vistas of Tunisian dunes and mountains, a memorable sand-storm, Italian frescoes, prehistoric cave paintings, frightful airplane crashes. No glory in this war. Only loss. Loss through judgment, fate, timing, healing. It features the only mad-sex-against-a wall-while-“Silent Night”-plays scene I’m aware of.
The centerpiece romance between the characters played by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas is challenging, as the people they play (very well) are austere and their selfishness leaves some viewers put off. Stronger effect comes through those portrayed by Juliette Binoche (wonderful) and Naveen Andrews, with vivid contributions from Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth and Jurgen Prochnow. Many neat supporting bits, detailed production design, costuming. It all works.
Cost figures vary from $27-44,000,000; worldwide take appears to be $231,000,000, gratifyingly showing a hunger exists for grand storytelling that involves real people and not just exploding machinery.
The Oscars were for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Binoche), Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound, Music, Costume Design, Art Direction. Nominations went for Actor (Fiennes), Actress (Thomas) and Script.