The English Patient (review)

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Desert Places

The English Patient opens with the beautiful image of the shadow of a biplane flitting over waves of desert dunes. Just before the plane is shot down by German artillery, we see a woman in the passenger seat, seemingly asleep.

Haunting and enthralling, The English Patient is a scrapbook of another world, of romance and adventure and tragedy, jumbled out of sequence. Years after the plane crash, its pilot, Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) — he survived the crash but was horribly burned and is now dying — reminisces bitterly about his stolen, illicit affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the woman in the plane. Almasy at first seems repelled by Katherine, the wife of a fellow cartographer Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) — all are part of an international group mapping North Africa just before World War II — but in fact he’s so strongly attracted to her that it frightens him. He is the kind of man who bottles up emotions until they explode, and when he and Katherine do finally come together, it is with a kind of rage.

In contrast to Almasy and Katherine’s tempestuous relationship is the tender, tentative romance between Almasy’s nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), and bomb expert Kip (Naveen Andrews) in the film’s present, near the end of the war. Hana believes she is cursed, that those she loves will invariably be killed — they frequently are — and her reluctance to get close to anyone in a world where friends and lovers are taken suddenly and capriciously will resonate in Almasy’s story.

With The English Patient, director Anthony Minghella has crafted a film that is lyrical and complex — emotionally, morally — and full of enduring images: a vivid yellow biplane against the blue sky, wrinkled dunes from the air melting into the crumpled sheet of a deathbed or sheets rumpled by lovemaking, a mountain described as “shaped like a woman’s back” later echoed in Katherine’s silhouette as she lies in bed. Fiennes and Thomas themselves are like works of art on film — both have a chiseled beauty that acts as a foil to the rounded, organic, shifting beauty of the desert, as well as to luminousness of Binoche and Andrews.

At the end, The English Patient comes full circle, back to where we started, like the memories that torment Almasy, with the shadow of the plane flitting over the desert, shot down by Germans.

Oscars Best Picture 1996
unforgettable movie moment:
Kip, a Sikh Indian, removes his turban and lets down his long hair to wash it, unaware of the sensuousness of this simple act.

previous Best Picture:
1995: Braveheart
next Best Picture:
1997: Titanic

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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