Thursday, February 14, 2013

Burn Notice

Film: The English Patient
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

While I currently have fewer than 200 films to watch to finish up the full 1001 List, I have a surprising number of Oscar winners and nominees still to see and review. I’m frequently surprised at how many there are left, so I’m going to try to make a larger effort to get through more of them sooner rather than later. To continue things from yesterday, what could be more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than The English Patient? This is grand romance in the classic tradition, epic in scale and length, making it perfect Oscar bait.

The film takes place about half in the present day of the film (late in World War II) and half in the years before that. A badly burned man (Ralph Fiennes) is being cared for in a desert hospital by a French-Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche). The man, partly because of his past and partly because of amnesia, refuses to divulge anything about himself, and so he is referred to only as the eponymous English patient. In reality, he is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a cartographer attempting to map the Sahara in the pre-war years.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of de Almasy’s work as a cartographer, and of the lives of others who work with him. Among these are Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Geoffrey is frequently away from the cartography group, and slowly, a romance starts to blossom between Katherine and de Almasy. It goes hot and heavy for a bit directly under the nose of her husband and everybody else, and then falters. Katherine is guilt-ridden over the infidelity, and de Almasy is jealous of her marriage to another man.

Meanwhile, back in the present, a man named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) arrives at the house where Hana and de Almasy are staying. Another Canadian, he was employed by the Allies as a spy, and was captured by the Germans, who cut off his thumbs. He holds de Almasy in part responsible for what happened to him, and as he has extracted revenge on everyone else who he holds responsible for his thumbless state, he plans to revenge himself on the Count.

Additionally, we learn that Hana believes herself to be cursed. In her world, everyone to whom she becomes attached dies. So when she begins her own romance with a Sikh bomb disposal expert named Kip (Naveen Andrews), things become increasingly tense for her.

What’s interesting to me is where the tension comes from in this film. For much of the film, at least in the flashbacks, the tension comes from the illicit romance, and even here, there isn’t a great deal. It’s simply an illicit romance between two people, and even here, there isn’t a great deal of tension. There is only a small level of tension in the fear that they will be caught, and even then there isn’t a great deal. In fact, the only real tension evident in this film is a desire to know what has happened and how de Almasy ended up this charred husk of a man lying in a bed awaiting his inevitable death. As the film progresses, we get smaller and smaller pieces of the picture until, at the end of the film, we see the entire picture of the love between Laszlo and Katherine, what happened to both of them, and the true tragedy of their lives.

Like any true epic film, the landscape itself is a major character, and The English Patient takes a great many cues from films like Lawrence of Arabia in its use of expansive desert landscapes. The photography is truly beautiful here, and something that is worth seeing even if the film were not.

So really, what we have here is a classic tragic romance unfolding (as many do) with a backdrop of war. There’s a doomed feeling throughout, particularly because we know that de Almasy will eventually end up as the burn victim slowly dying in a bed. And it’s a beautiful tragedy throughout. What it’s not is very exciting. It absolutely managed to keep my interest throughout, start to finish, but there were some moments when I found myself mentally wandering a little or focusing on something that wasn’t specifically part of the main story. In addition to having a doomed quality, it also has something of a dream-like quality to it. Like the desert sands, it drifts a bit, and I mean that not as a negative, but only as an observation.

I would be remiss not to mention Ralph Fiennes’s burn makeup. It’s too much of a coincidence that much of the scarring has the same visual quality as the desert landscape, and I’m certain that this is intentional. It doesn’t, however, always look that convincing. At times, it works, but at other times, Fiennes simply looks ancient and wrinkled, not burned.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this film, but I also didn’t love it. It has all the earmarks of romance in the grandest of traditions, but seems too emotionally level throughout to really qualify as a great one. In fact, the grandest passion exhibited is when Caravaggio pleads for his thumbs. The passion, while evident at times, simply fizzles, and ultimately, the love that should drive the film ends up a bit of a wet match.

Why to watch The English Patient: A three-hanky romance.
Why not to watch: Ralph Fiennes’s burn make up just makes him look really old.


  1. Replies
    1. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't at least a little proud of it.

  2. I agree, your title is exceptional. Ah, but you and I differ on our affection for this film. I absolutely love this film, but, of course, I'm a sucker for grand romances.

    1. I can be a sucker for the grand romance, and there's a part of me that appreciates them more when they end downbeat, or at least bittersweet. I just wanted more "there" there with this one. Still, it's very much worth seeing.

  3. I.... really kinda love this one. It came out at the right time for me. I was in high school, in full-on movie heartthrob crush mode, and Ralph Fiennes... hoo nelly. I had hardcore feelings for him for YEARS, in no small part because of this film (AND Wuthering Heights, AND Quiz Show, AND the one that started it all, Schindler's List). Oh, how this one made me cry when I was a teenager.

    I haven't seen it in years, not since college, which was well over a decade ago. I remember that dream-like quality you mentioned, these scenes that are just so beautiful and ethereal (the painting/mural scene I still remember well and stands out).

    Plus Colin Firth as the shafted husband. Ralph Fiennes and Colin Firth in the same movie. Holy crap but what I wouldn't STILL give to be the woman who has the love of both of those men. Hot pieces of...

    One of the things I still associate with The English Patient, though, is that it won the Oscar during the year that the independent films took over the Oscars. The English Patient, Breaking the Waves, Shine, and Fargo were four of the five nominees, all of which were outside major Hollywood studios. Jerry Maguire was the only major Hollywood production, and everyone knew it wouldn't win.

    Hollywood fought back, though. Next year was Titanic.

    1. And we all know how you feel about Titanic.

      I do get why people really like this film. There's a lot here that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a lot that feels like a sort of classic film, and Oscar has always loved this sort of film. Out of Africa is similar in a lot of ways, although I like this one a lot more than that one.

    2. And I meant to say nice Burn Notice reference as well. Ralph Fiennes and Michael Westen... Mmmmmmm....

    3. I was always more of a Sam Axe fan.

    4. My sister named her cat 'Fiona.' And Bruce Campbell = always awesome, mais oui.

  4. I guess I'm going to be the party-pooper. I've seen every single Oscar Best Picture winner. The English Patient would make my "Worst 5 of all time" list, maybe Worst 3. The only reason it wouldn't be number one is because of the production values on display in it.

    What were my problems with the film? The two competing stories. I feel that either the English patient's story, or the story with the nurse and the bomb disposal guy, would have made an interesting film. The problem is that they were both awkwardly thrown together, alternating at points that seem to have been picked for the times that would cause the most irritation. The result made the film feel extremely long to me.

    How much did I dislike this film? A woman at work who I found interesting happened to be walking out of the building at the same time as me. I had just bought this film at lunchtime in order to own every Best Picture winner on DVD. She saw me carrying it and exclaimed over how much she loved it. Both of us were single and it obviously was an opening for me to invite her to watch it with me. Even though I knew this, and even though I found her interesting, I still couldn't bring myself to subject myself to this film again just a couple weeks after sitting through it the first time. I loaned her the DVD instead.

    If I had to pick one film that separates the men from the women it's this one. You're actually the first man I've seen that actually had some good things to say about it (not that there's anything wrong with that.) I've yet to come across a woman who didn't like this film (even Siobhan above who usually hates all "epic" movies, especially ones with romance plots in them - i.e. Titanic).

    1. Fair enough. When talking about Best Picture winners--and I haven't seen all of them (yet)--this one wouldn't make my bottom five even now. Out of Africa probably would be fighting with Around the World in 80 Days right now for the bottom spot.

      On the other hand, it also wouldn't make my top 10.

    2. After The English Patient I was actually dreading Out of Africa (they were among the last ones I saw), but when I finally saw it I was not that bothered by it. Perhaps it was because I was expecting another horrible experience and then it wasn't that bad.

    3. Yeah, I can see that. Out of Africa wasn't a terrible film, but there just wasn't enough "there" there. It takes a good two hours for the romance to blossom, and when it does, well, it's not really that great. I get the gorgeous photography, but I want more than that for almost three hours of my life.

  5. "The English Patient" is is one of the movies in my collection, but I didn't put it there. I'll never forget the agony that this one caused Elaine on "Seinfeld".