Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Review of An Old Move Everyone Loves to Hate

I was in the mood for something classic last night, so I watched Anthony Minghella's 1996 film, The English Patient.

I included this film in my list of 20 favorite movies, and (based on comments to that post and comments I've heard generally) it seems to be a film everybody else hates. I wonder at this.

When the film debuted in 1996 I was recently divorced, a 35-year-old man living in a rented single room in a St. Paul warehouse and flying out of Marquette, MI as a junior captain with my first airline job. I was in the midst of a quasi-affair at the time (quasi- meaning the whole business was more aspirational on my part than reality-based), and between that and the turmoil of reordering my life after 13 years of marriage I have always wondered if the movie resonated for me because I made some flimsy connection between my own emotional turmoil and that seen onscreen. Whatever the reason, at the time I was magnetically drawn to it and I saw it five or six times in the theater.

I've watched it several more times in the ensuing dozen years, always wondering if its pull on me would eventually fade. But it never does. There are things I can skip over (like Moose getting his thumbs cut off), but the affair between Almasy and Katherine Clifton, which is the centerpiece of the film, seems ageless to me. That central part--the yearning for love--is eternal and universal. And I love the urbanity of the writing, the main characters' breezy sophistication and how the interaction between Almasy and Katherine is so stiff and awkward in the beginning. It keeps one a little off balance. Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes (both impossibly thin and dashing and beautiful) bring so many delicious little details to their performances. The fact that the affair is forbidden (Katherine is married) gives the romance a charge quite beyond what would otherwise be there.

I also think the desert doesn't hurt things at all. (Even Indiana Jones attempts to capitalize on archeology and the desert--and even Nazis!) It gives a dashing, exotic backdrop to what might otherwise have been garden variety marital infidelity.

It's also a really beautiful movie visually. The war in Europe; an abandoned Italian monastery; Cairo on the edge of a desert ocean; fabric-winged airplanes: it's all wonderfully evoked and the images stay with one long after. I have the soundtrack on my iTunes and will occasionally listen to it in the car on a long drive; it evokes the entire movie.

I remember reading the book and thinking it would be very difficult to translate into a movie. So much of the story is internal, and the timeline jumps back and forth repeatedly. And there are several related storylines, any of which would be difficult to cut out. But the basic elements of the story have been around forever, and make a kind of guaranteed formula for epic romances. When Casablanca came out in 1942, it was one of numerous films at the time attempting to wed several key ingredients: a globetrotting plot, international intrigue (preferably with Nazis), a tempestuous love affair; a mysterious character or two; all placed in an exotic setting. While Casablanca has bubbled up to near the top of the film canon, at the time of its release it had to jockey amongst a whole host of similar films, most of which have since faded from memory. The English Patient is really an update of this old, proven formula.

My wife says I'm a softie at heart, a kind of hybrid half-man who gets choked up easily at movies (and music, to her dismay). But I think this is an overtly emotional movie, one which does not attempt to hide its sentiments behind action or plot devices. The man who fails to save his beloved; the nurse who fails to keep her charge alive; the husband who cannot hold his wife's affection; the rending of friendships; the fall of nations. It's a sad story on most every account. But how deliciously sad, and how rich a path to the tragic end.

If you're not altogether sure you hate it, rent it again. In fact, rent it again in any case. It's everything sweeping and grand about the cinema.


dbackdad said...

I was one of those that detested it when it came out. Now, it's been so long since I've seen it that I can't even remember what I disliked about it. I really liked him as a director and like all the actors. I think I need to re-watch it.

BrianAlt said...


Didn't hate it, just so damn boring. Couldn't figure out why I was supposed to care!

wunelle said...

Ha! I just can't see it. How does one buy into anything in movies if one finds romance boring?

But, at least if you steer clear of romances you can shave, say, 35% of all movie output in history. Makes life simpler.

BrianAlt said...

I like romance.

That was boooorrrriiiinnngggg!