One of the reasons I launched this series was to try to understand the thought process AMPAS members go through to pick the Best Picture winner of any year.
It’s not an easy decision and it’s something that will be criticized by every film aficionado worldwide. It’s also impossible to know how a film will age. There have been extraordinarily successful Best Picture winners that still maintain a high level of respect, and there are films that are practically forgotten about after they win.
The latter outcome is what happened The English Patient. True, there’s never been any significant critical backlash against it and, for fans of old-fashioned Hollywood costume dramas, you could do far, far worse than this movie.
Still, today people hold The Coen Brother’s Best Picture challenger Fargo in much higher regard. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2006 and appeared on AFI’s Top 100 list in 1998. (To be fair, The English Patient was on a similar 1999 BFI list). It also spawned a successful TV show, and the Coen Brothers are still actively working today and winning awards.
But The English Patient? Its most famous impact on pop culture may be its references on Seinfeld.
I want to emphasize that, unlike other films I’ve featured here like Crash, I don’t dislike The English Patient. It’s an effective story of a dying man recalling his greatest romance and Ralph Fiennes gives a terrific performance. And, while it was nominated for a slew of Oscars, Willem Dafoe was unjustly overlooked for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing Caravaggio.
But did it deserve all the accolades it received?
Well, to paraphrase The Simpsons, “Tis a fine movie but sure tis no Best Picture, English.”
The film take place in the waning days of WWII and opens with a man, played by Fiennes, getting in a plane crash, and suffering severe burns that completely destroy his face. (His character’s name is Lazlo Almasy, but throughout the notes I took I referred to the character as “Bernie.” Get it?) He is cared for by a nurse (Juliette Bionche from The Three Colors trilogy) who receives permission to house him in a bombed monastery. The man can’t remember much about his life but does have a prized copy of Herodotus’ Histories with him. Inside his copy are pictures and notes about his past life as a cartographer – a life defined by a romance with Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas), a woman married to English intelligence officer Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth). As the nurse reads the notes in his book, he starts to regain his memory and flashes back to those moments documented in the book.
It’s not a bad set up, especially for a costume drama. David Lean and James Ivory would also portray sex and love in very old-fashioned ways, the way director Anthony Minghella here. The most intimate and sensual moments aren’t based around sex (although Thomas is sometimes naked), but on their conversation and seemingly mundane actions. I felt the passion Kat felt as she give photos of newly discovered cave paintings to Bernie. There’s no intimacy we see in that moment, but there’s definitely intimacy we feel. It’s simply a different approach and both Fiennes and Thomas have great onscreen chemistry.
I’ve always criticized Hollywood epics as being too long and self-indulgent (with a few exceptions). Making a three-hour movie shows the director is far proud of the scenes they’re shooting, and the pacing of the movie ends up slow ass a river of parked cars.
Fortunately, The English Patient avoids this fate, and despite its nonlinear editing, the plot is always engaging. They even manage a genuinely suspenseful scene as Kip, an explosive ordnance officer, tries to defuse a bomb as other soldiers try to stop a convoy from driving over a bridge. And even with the flashbacks, the film is relatively easy to follow. And it’s very beautiful to look at. Despite its desert setting, the cinematography makes everything look radiant and inviting. It is some of the best cinematography on that subject since Lawrence of Arabia.
So, where do I think the film stumbles?
For one, I never quite understood what the flashbacks were supposed to accomplish. Allegedly, Bernie has lost his memory and the format should be about him regaining his memories and coming to terms with his actions. (We find out from Caravaggio, Dafoe’s character, that he gave Nazis maps of Africa that they then used to for their invasion.) But I never get the sense of him reacting to regaining his memories or how he feels falling in love all over again. It becomes increasingly how the characters, particularly the nurse Hana, respond to his story as she falls in love with Kip. But Bernie is left as too much of an enigma and I don’t think we get to know the man he became through his experiences.
For another, it’s always dangerous to set a romance against the backdrop of WWII. The midst of a devastating war that led to some of the greatest atrocities human civilization has wrecked on itself, who really cares about a cartographer’s affair? As a much better romance said, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Now, the filmmakers try to address this by setting most of the romance before the war breaks out and by setting the film in northern Africa, which WWII movies have seemingly forgotten existed. And we do see some of Nazi atrocities, like how an officer forces a nurse to slice off Caravaggio’s thumbs with a straight razor.
But then we’re back to Bernie and Katharine and I’m once again wondering whether or not they’re burying the lead.
Besides, nothing about this is unique it could have been any number of WWII epics and, to me, doesn’t really do anything to stand out. Yes, the performances are good, but so are the performances in Casablanca. Yes, the film feels appropriately big, but so does The Longest Day. Yes, it was effective in its shifting focus to different characters, but Terrence Malick outdid it two years later with The Thin Red Line. Again, none of that means The English Patient is bad but a Best Picture should stand out on its own, not simply remind me of other movies.
Of course, that’s ultimate the reason it won. AMPAS old-timers love that setting and love making those comparisons because it reminds them of the epics they loved as youths. Fargo, with its attempts to make destroying a body with a woodchipper funny, was far too weird for AMPAS voters. The English Patient was safe and comfortable.
There’s an irony with most Best Picture winners. They don’t truly represent the way movies are evolving. Rather, they’re the best representatives of what worked in the past. Think of Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. The latter was the better movie and has been far more influential on American film. But Forrest Gump made aging Boomers nod in appreciation. Since they were the voters, they selected Gump. And that’s what also happened during the 1996 awards ceremony. The English Patient is practically the definition of Oscar bait. It’s not bad, it’s just far too shallow and far too interested in hitting people with nostalgia for the epics of the past.