The English Patient (1996) (R)

Certainly one of the most hated of all the Best Picture Winners, "The English Patient" is the head-scratching tour de force that swept the Academy Awards and walked away with nine statues. The critical opinion of the piece was very high with it landing on many "best of the year" lists; but sadly for the movie, it flopped with the public audience. Seinfeld mocked it--"just die already"--and the general consensus now seems to be the same: snooze fest. Yet, I think that this is denying the viewer the privilege of witnessing one of the last great epics (if not the very last) and one of the most curiously romantic and poetic movies to date.
"The English Patient" begins as a plane flies over an African desert. It is shot down and burns. A man is pulled from the wreckage and taken to a hospital where his burns are so great that his death seems inevitable; but he still hangs on and claims amnesia. His nationality is questioned and eventually he is just deemed 'English patient'.
Now we have Hana (Juliette Binoche) a plucky nurse who seems to embody everything good with humanity. Sadly for her, she believes that she is cursed because everyone that she loves sees to die around her.
The war (WWII) is very much a back part of the movie, but a force that drives our characters' movements. Here again there are severely anti-war sentiments; but they are overwhelmed with the poetry of the movie.
Hana's path and that of the English patient's cross and she decides that instead of inflicting further pain and anguish upon the poor man, she will stay with him in an abandoned castle-like house and wait until his death and then catch up with the rest of her company.
As she sets up house, the estate breaths memories back into the man and we spiral back to see his past.
Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is a cartographer and explorer with the Royal Geographical Society.  He studies archaeological finds in Africa and is doing his work when bombarded with constant interruptions, one of them being Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Meditations on love, the glorious sunrise, and a couple of minutes later and we begin to realize that the Count is falling madly in love with Katharine, the love that is so toxic as to be called "truly romantic".
One of the aspects that "The English Patient" nails is the romance and the love. It is never some tender or some Hollywood fluff thing--there is genuine sorrow that walks with it, hand-in-hand. The good is inseparable from the bad and what we are left with is something that resists definition and remains complex throughout. It's a guttural reaction to something that has been pondered on for so long and while it may anticipate works like Malick's "To the Wonder" that came years later, it certainly stands alone as the most enduring and truthful interpretations of the subject.
Moving on...
The story is told in these two theaters: the one with Hana and the one with the Count. Most movies like this fumble the story-telling and result to cliches and the like to convey emotion, to give us a sense of time; but "The English Patient" is not the kind of movie to do this.
Anthony Minghella, adapting Michael Ondaatje's novel, gives us a form of poetry. Most of the success of these blistering moments of what some consider to be pretentiousness is due to John Seale's perfect cinematography.
The Count relives the best and worst moments in his life while Hana looks after him and is visited by a number of odd characters who include a robber played by Willem Dafoe and a bomb specialist (Naveen Andrews).
The acting is perfect, as is the score, the script, and the casting. Everything lines up so nicely that it almost becomes above reproach.
So what makes "The English Patient" so hated. Maybe it's because it is so challenging with its ideas of love, or maybe it's because of the running time (although the film doesn't match "Braveheart" or "Titanic" with how long it is). Whatever the reason, the public hates this movie; but that's okay.
It makes this one all the more special to me, because I not only consider it to be a great film, I consider it to be one of the greatest Best Picture winners ever.

Score: ★★★★

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