Tuesday 27 Sep 2016

The English Patient
Eileen Rush

World War II is ending. In a bombed-out monastery, in Italy, a young nurse tends to the wounds of a mysterious burn victim, injured in a plane crash. The story of the nurse unfolds and the past, of the burn victim, reveals in a series of flashbacks.

“The English Patient,” a 1996 movie, stars Ralph Fiennes, as the burn victim. Juliette Binoche portrays, Hana, a nurse from Canada. The movie derives from the 1992 novel by Michael Ondattje.

For its stunning cinematography, amazing caste of actors and thematic depth, “The English Patient” might be the greatest film since “Casablanca.” Although long, “Patient” offers insight into human conflict and character. Almost a novel in cinematic form, “Patient” is able to transform its audience, drawing viewers into the conflicted and complicated world of its characters.

Honestly, I can’t watch “Patient” without bawling my eyes out. When someone asks about my favourite film, “The English Patient” always tops my list. I’m surprised, most often, even people who consider themselves great lovers of movies haven’t seen this film.

It’s a shame. “The English Patient,” the movie, doesn’t fall far from the novel. In fact, in is one case, the movie might surpass the novel and its almost literary quality, must in part be contributed to Ondaatje working closely with the filmmakers.

My interest in “Patient” is twofold. First, I love of history. I’m fascination with North Africa. Second, I have a deep love for the work of Ralph Fiennes.

Although Fiennes, best known as portraying Lord Voldemort, in the Harry Potter films, is, I believe, one of the greatest actors, today. He’s best known and, perhaps, typecast, as an infamous villain: besides Voldemort, he’s played a Nazi in “Schindler’s List”, a serial killer in “Red Dragon” and even Hades in the horrific “Clash of the Titans” remake.

To typecast Fiennes, as an ordinary villain, is to miss the depth of his work, as an actor. He portrays internal struggle and conflict, sorrow and madness, in ways other actors, most actors cannot. Even in his roles as a villain, he brings depth and understanding that shines.

To dismiss “The English Patient” or “The Constant Gardener” is to dismiss some of his best work. I’m not the only one to think so. Fiennes received two Academy Awards nomination. One nomination is for his role in “The English Patient,” which also won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His other Oscar nomination is for “Schindler’s List.”

The twisting, turning plot, of “The English Patient,” can be unwound into two story lines. The first involves a young French-Canadian nurse, Hana, who finds herself alone in a bombed-out Italian monastery towards the end of World War II. She refuses to leave the side of a mysterious burn victim, a survivor of a plane crash, under her care. She soon finds herself in the company of a Canadian intelligence operative and former thief, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, who lost both of his thumbs during interrogation by a German intelligence officer.

Hana believes anyone close to her is likely to die. Still, she develops a romantic relationship, with a British Army sapper, who defuses bombs. Naveen Andrews portrays the character, Kip, an Indian Sikh.

As the film unwinds, it’s revealed the mysterious burn victim, Fiennes, is the Hungarian Count, László Almásy, whose affair with a married woman, portrayed by Kristen Scott Thomas, causes his destruction. Flashbacks reveal this fact and transport viewers to a time of intrigue and risk.

Almásy was leading a Royal Geographical Survey in Egypt and Libya, creating a map of the Sahara, in the events leading up to his plane crash. He and his partner, Madox, at heart an academic, have their team bolstered by a British couple, Geoffrey Clinton, portrayed by Colin Firth and his stunning wife, Katherine.

The Count is smitten with the delicate and refined Katherine. An affair takes wing, as Geoffrey is often away. Fiennes and Thomas bring to the screen a magnetism that is unmatched in a lot of current cinema.

Their affair is beyond believable: the quiet, isolated academic, drawn to the vulnerable, charming and trapped homemaker. This culminates with them trapped in a car in the Sahara. Waiting for rescue, Fiennes, his fingers touching the car window, says to Katherine, “Let me tell you about winds.”

As the war ends, so does the story come to a satisfying, heart rendering close. The themes, of “The English Patient,” along the consequences of action juxtaposed by questions of fate, play out through real characters whose struggles and pitfalls are heartbreaking.

“The English Patient is truly one of the most beautiful films made in the last 30 years. It reveals, well, how connections form and, ultimately, unravel.“The English Patient” serves as a cathartic release into a world of beauty, savageness and ultimately peace.

Eileen Rush is an LA-based writer and journalist.

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