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The English Patient Epitomizes ’90s Prestige Cinema

Watching The English Patient 25 years after its release can at first feel a bit off-kilter, as if one entered into a time warp. Many of the film’s ostentatious tropes are familiar enough, filled as it is with melodramatic flourishes, a flashback-heavy narrative, and sweeping locales. In fact, most of the movie feels somewhat derivative. Equally recognizable—yet less accommodating to contemporary discriminations perhaps—is its bloated air of grandeur. Set at the tail end of WWII, it extravagantly recounts Saharan desert safaris, serendipitous rendezvouses, illicit love affairs, and lots of misty-eyed heartbreak. In essence, the film has all the workings of schmaltzy yet sophisticated melodrama. The characters intermittently indulge in histrionic eruptions and the plot regularly meanders about, detouring into pompous digressions; the pacing dilates, digresses, and circles forward in circuitous loops. Swollen and turgid, perhaps even tedious at times, these qualities feel quite at odds with modern-day cinema. Much more puffed-up and distended than the hyper-kinetic, high-octane, no-frills war dramas and love-stories of today, The English Patient plays like a relic of a more zealous age.

That the tonal musicality and structural modalities of a steadily aging yet once highfalutin film such as The English Patient now feel somewhat unhitched and disengaging is to be expected. A temporal medium, the tempo of movies is always shifting, and these shifts can be quite corrosive and merciless to films of the past. The constant introduction of editing styles and storytelling methodologies can be especially unwelcoming to movies that were once touted as timeless masterpieces. The lofty romantic epic prototype that The English Patient models itself after fits this very specific brand of elitist, yet mainstream, cinema. With mannered airs, it is self-aware of its urbanity and snobbish almost to a fault. Both highbrow and a huge studio production, its odd combination of popcorn fluff and supercilious overtones has become increasingly rare in the Hollywood model. Evocative of classics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984)sprawling, Homeric, and haughty without an ounce of ironic, stylistic, or aesthetic self-awareness—The English Patient prototype has simply become dated and unfashionable as of late.

It might be argued that the last sweeping romantic drama to earn a decently warm reception from both critics and audiences was 2007’s Atonement. Some might note that Joe Wright’s more recent film Darkest Hour (2017), Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), or Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019) obliquely fit into this template. There are some similarities. However, these more recent war-sagas are grittier, less stilted, and stagy in a more claustrophobic sense. Not nearly as ‘theatrical’ or precious, they rely on heavily stylized techniques (i.e. the panoramic soundscapes of Dunkirk or the one-shot seamlessness of 1917) that set them visually and textually apart. Adjacent as they are, recent war movies are much too novel and postmodern to be aligned with the sober and staid kind of film The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, or A Passage to India strove to be. Without a doubt, in the past few decades, moviemaking has veered far away from producing the solemn, wholehearted, un-ironic epics of the past.

Almásy and Katharine dance at a ball during WWII

In 1997 though, a sweeping romantic epic like The English Patient was still the epitome of prestige cinema. It was so successful, in fact, that it earned 12 Oscar nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, and took home nine trophies, winning Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound, Best Director for Anthony Minghella, Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche, and Best Picture. Though they didn’t win, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas were respectively nominated for Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role, and the film also received a nom for Best Adapted Screenplay. To put this into context, the most nominations any film has ever received is 14: a feat accomplished only three times by All About Eve (1950), Titanic (1997), and La La Land (2016). Merely 10 films in history have received 13 nods—a claim shared by the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), From Here to Eternity (1953), Forrest Gump (1994), and Shakespeare in Love (1998). 12-time nominated films are a bit more populated, but still enjoy a very elite status shared amongst only 16 films, including a bevy of war-heavy, heart-tugging dramas like Schindler’s List (1993), Dances with Wolves (1990), Gladiator (technically, 2000), and of course, The English Patient (1996).

So what’s the purpose of this digression into Oscars-related statistics? Does receiving a dozen nominations automatically catapult The English Patient into the pantheon of all-time great films? Not exactly. In fact, the long-term implications of success at the Oscars can be quite murky and short-lived. After all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earned 13 nominations in 2008. Yes, you read that right—just 13 years ago, a saccharine story about a backward-aging old man won the hearts and minds of the supposed “arbiters” of high cinematic achievement. To say that Benjamin Button feels incongruous with the zeitgeist today feels, at least to me, like an understatement. Clearly, when looking back at past favorites of the Oscars, what is ultimately revealed is not a film’s intrinsic value; instead, what the Academy really exposes is the transient, mercurial proclivities of the industry’s taste during a certain time and place. Contrary to what they want you to think, the Academy Awards are revelatory of popular opinion, and not much else.

Regardless of its actual cinematic merit on aesthetic or narrative levels, The English Patient, like all highly revered films that date somewhat awkwardly, is fascinating for this fact alone: it is a document that preserves history and culture’s capricious predilections better than any textbook can. Critically-acclaimed and yet also a piece of ephemera, the film preserves neither truth nor topical facts—obviously not, given that it is a period piece about WWII—so much as the subtle tones, styles, and sensibilities that resonated with a highly time-sensitive, ever-evolving, and elusive zeitgeist. Ultimately, what watching The English Patient rewards one with today is the chance to teleport into the past, and get an inkling of the precise proprieties and palate of long-defunct cultural propensities.

Almásy holds a rose in his mouth with a deformed face as Katharine sits next to him with a book in hand

This is not to say that taste is utterly bereft of continuity. Much of The English Patient still reverberates sonorously today. Without a doubt, the film boasts tremendous ambition. Its expansive plot somehow manages to interweave bodily disfigurement, selective amnesia, marital trysts, double-crossing, Nazi interrogations, hostile territories populated by Bedouin tribesmen, risky Saharan expeditions, severe dehydration, sandstorms, suspenseful bomb/mine disposal sequences, archeological discoveries, euthanasia, and tragic romance together into a single orotund story. Through all of these plot lines run a few common themes—none more prominent than the recurring motif of the forbidden, enigmatic, and seductive Other. Every character in the film is venturing into some unknown, plunging headfirst into the quicksand of precarious passions.

This motif is echoed by countless elements. It is echoed by the profession of Count László de Almásy (the English patient’s actual name, unveiled midway through the film) as a cartographer, as an explorer of unmapped lands; by Almásy’s perilous liaison (as a stately yet roguish Hungarian man) with the married British surveyor and aristocrat Katharine Clifton (splendidly played by Kristen Scott Thomas); by the hysterical romance between Hana (Almásys’s French-Canadian nurse, played by Juliette Binoche) and the Sikh sapper Kip (Naveen Andrews); by the unearthing of the ancient Cave of Swimmers cave paintings in Egypt’s remote and unwelcoming Golf Kebir region; by the Canadian Intelligence Corps operative Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) and his search to avenge everyone who aided his German torturers’ infiltration into Cairo; and by Almásy’s intoxicating, morphine-assisted submergence into the agonizingly enigmatic landscapes of his latent, lost memories. Colliding with enemies and spies, operatives and secret agents, exotic lovers, and bombarding artillery, everyone in The English Patient is enraptured, tortured, infatuated by, under direct surveillance, threatened, or cared for by some nonnative entity. Everyone is subsumed by some unquenchable quest, or conscientiously trying to escape, or hazardously pursuing the evasive Other.

Hana, Almásy's nurse, reads to him in an Italian monastery

The mere scope of The English Patient is intimidating as well. Its maudlin spoils can be exhausting. Its multinational ensemble is loaded with backstories that become cumbersome and difficult to keep track of. Its transcontinental locations—jumping back and forth between locations in Egypt and Italy—are constantly changing. Its labyrinthine plotline is definitely daunting. Bloated as it may be though, the film often transcends its excesses on the merit of taut, narrative craftsmanship. Crisply written, the adapted screenplay neatly synthesizes its disparate character arcs and trajectories in a way that allows everything and everyone to coalesce thematically together.

This convergence and harmony is somewhat ironic though, given the predominant themes of fragmentation and disintegration that haunts the film. However, the contradiction makes perfect sense. Mirroring the Second World War, The English Patient encompasses and incorporates elements and individuals hailing from all over the globe in an expectedly dissonant and inhospitable manner. Dangers lurk everywhere: Nazi officers round up suspects at checkpoints; thumbs are severed off via torture tactics; cars topple over in dunes and standing an entire team of archeologists; sand storms nearly bury the stranded caravans and almost suffocate the voyagers alive; mines and bombs are constantly on the brink of detonating; and the Italian monastery that Hana nurses Almásy within is completely gutted—literally and symbolically bombed-out. Planes are constantly crashing, first, by consequence of Geoffrey Clifton’s (Colin Firth) attempted murder-suicide, the cuckolded husband of Katharine trying to kill his wife and Almásy with his Boeing-Stearmen, and then later by consequence of German anti-aircraft guns—as Almásy is shot down trying to escape the Kufra Oasis in his buddy Madox’s Tiger Moth aircraft.

The threats are not only physical, but psychological as well. Nearly everyone in The English Patient suffers from trauma, unrequited love, or both. Chronicling the final days of the war, the primary violence we witness is in flashbacks from memories. This is telling; despite surviving, and despite enduring different circumstances, the psychological and emotional toll of World War II is still painfully palpable and pervasive. Hana is shell-shocked by the loss of former lovers. Caravaggio is troubled by the Nazi torture tactics that left him without thumbs. Almásy is anguished, even possessed, by the memories of Katharine’s death, his scarred physiognomy, and the sudden snippets of the past that resurface and seize his mind whenever the morphine kicks in. Stricken with debilitating PTSD, the characters are all stuck in the protracted nightmare that World War II invoked and left in its wake. As if the actual war wasn’t horrific enough, its horrors continued to linger long after the violence ended in the tormented words, disturbed memories, and cursed lives of all those who were unlucky enough to directly experience it.

Willem Dafoe plays Caravaggio, who in this image is being shackled, held prisoner, and tortured by Nazi interrogators in The English Patient (1996)

On the page, all of this sounds very enticing, and yet, The English Patient hasn’t fared very well over its 25-year lifespan. Simply mentioning an interest in revisiting The English Patient was confronted with lots of feisty, salty takes. Delving deeper, I found this attitude to be ubiquitous online. An article modestly titled “11 of the Most Overrated Movies” conceded the film to be “well-crafted” before ranting about how it suffered from “emotionally distant” leads that exuded “absolutely no chemistry.” The author concluded their rant by calling the movie “murky, cold and distant.” Another piece, aptly titled “Sh!#ting on the Classics,” railed against the film for being “endless, wrong-headed, confusing, forgettable, pretentious, and trite.” Meanwhile, in another click-bait article titled “10 Movies We Don’t See What All the Fuss Was About,” a writer at Den of Geek captured the prevailing sentiment online a bit more evenly, reflexively noting: “Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was the worst film I have ever seen, it does fall into the overrated bucket.” This widespread denunciation of The English Patient as not worthy of its status definitely piqued my curiosity. I wondered if the venom was warranted. Was the film was truly overrated or merely antiquated? Are we were simply too lazy to follow its byzantine, multi-pronged narrative or too savvy, cynical, and jaded to care for its hoity-toity literary conceits and snooty cinematic posturing? Were there more implicit tonal elements and underlying factors lurking beneath everything that caused us to no longer resonate with the material as we once had?

If forced to hypothesize the main source of all this animosity, I would be remiss not cite and circle back to the film’s dominance of the 69th Academy Awards, drawing the expected envy and spite that such dominance often attracts. Yet, to be fair, 1996 was a fairly low-key year for Hollywood. The other Best Picture nominations consisted entirely of small-budget indie flicks: Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, and Shine. This is not to say that indie films are not worthy contenders; to the contrary, indie movies more often than not require superior storytelling to ascend from the fray. Fargo is an outright Coen Bro’s black-comedy classic. Jerry Maguire is jam-packed with some of the most memorable rom-com quotes to boom off the big screen in the past 25 years. Secrets & Lies is one of countless Mike Leigh masterworks of British kitchen-sink realism.

Nevertheless, when Hollywood does manage to score a blockbuster saga that balances both ends of the cinematic spectrum—being both smart and sumptuous, monumental and poignant, big and small, universal and intimate, historic and relatable, serpentine and straightforward, bombastic and understated, lyrical and adventurous—the film tends to prove unbeatable not only at box offices but at the awards ceremonies as well. The English Patient is very much that movie. Its gargantuan scale, literary weight, and swooning storytelling alone justify its success. A mythic tale of timeworn themes, it has all the underpinnings of a legendary classic. Its unrelenting grandiosity and unyielding pathos never cease pulling at our heartstrings—coaxing the audience to get attuned with oversized feelings. Its earnest, orthodox storytelling dominates our attention for a tortuous and twisty 162 minute running time. Sure, it is undoubtedly convoluted and overwrought with multiple overlapping narratives, but these elaborate—albeit sometimes-strained ambitions—ultimately serve a single unifying purpose: offering solid adult entertainment that is simultaneously intelligent and emotionally decadent.

Almásy and Katharine standing stranded in the Egyptian desert in The English Patient

And yet, herein lies perhaps the biggest obstacle and likeliest source of The English Patient’s lukewarm reception today: more than any other structural or aesthetic quality, the tone and ethos of a narrative work are arguably the most vulnerable facets when it comes to rapid cultural putrescence. It is easy to admire the aesthetic formalities of something old-fashioned from afar, even if said format has grown culturally obsolete. It is easy to geek out on the oddball humor and clever fast-talking rom-coms of Hollywood’s Golden Age or the stylistic pomp and shadowy chiaroscuro cool of classic noirs, indulge in 80s era cheese with glee and laugh with friends at the hammier aspects of a mid-90s disaster flick and blockbuster, but when a movie genuinely strives to make you feel raw emotions, and does so with a solemn, straightforward seriousness, the results can be jarring.

This is exactly what The English Patient suffers from. It is simply much too easy to take an ironic distance and scoff at the inflated contrivances of the film—coldly critiquing it as fanciful, over-sentimental, played-out Oscar-bait. The criticism is fair. It is undoubtedly corny and lachrymose at times. Nevertheless, there is another approach one can take with a movie like The English Patient. This approach pertains to all movies that were once honestly beloved by the general consensus, and have since faded substantially in popularity and appreciation. This approach requires a specific type of generosity—a type that requires concentrated effort and active mindfulness. Instead of resisting the moments of atavistic atonality and discordance, it requires opening oneself up further, intellectually and emotionally, to the vestigial atmospherics of the story. Instead of shying away and analyzing from an icy distance, it requires active participation and immersion.

Admittedly, the plea to be more magnanimous and involved can be universally applied to any film. In most—if not all—instances, anyone who adopts this approach will likely reap rewards. Just as energy is bound to the laws of thermodynamics, the movie-going experience may very well be bound to the fundamental law of perception and empathy—always giving back benefits proportionate to what you put in. But in the case of The English Patient, what you’ll get in return for a charitable viewing is manifold. Beyond the opportunity to merge with the filmmaker’s wavelength and tenor, or to emote with the dynamic affective spectrum of its ensemble, you will also unearth the mood of an anachronistic zeitgeist. By intuiting and discerning the merits of a film that formerly held significant cultural capital, you will reanimate the unique sensitivities and value systems of its time period. Though ostensibly recent in the overall schema of history, enjoying The English Patient today may nonetheless require psychically teleporting into an archaic mindset in order to achieve sincere satisfaction. Just like Almásy, who spends the majority of the film consumed by morphine-induced reminiscences, enjoying The English Patient may require ardently embracing the most elusive Other there is: the past. By allowing yourself to be open and receptive to the mysterious charms and seductions of this already forgotten classic, you may temporarily recover the spirit of a bygone era.

Written by Paul Keelan

Paul Keelan currently resides in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and cat. He has toured the continental US multiple times as a bassist playing rock jams, lived / traveled / taught abroad for over five years (primarily in Asia), and watched an unhealthy amount of movies.

When not writing about cinema for 25YL and Letterboxd, or working on his travel novels / novellas, he spends free time reenacting imaginary montage sequences as he records, edits, and cohosts the spectacular sports movie podcast Cinematic Underdogs.

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