“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it's full again.”
When it comes to lobbying the Academy during Oscar season, no one does it better than the Weinsteins. In fact they have a capacity for turning ‘art house’ projects into Oscar gold that would make an alchemist sick with envy. Over the last fifteen years their movies have picked up the Best Picture Oscar four times, most recently with The King’s Speech and before that with Chicago in 2002, Shakespeare In Love in 1998 and in 1996 with the film that started this run of success, The English Patient.
Back in 1996 The English Patient also had another ace up its sleeve in the form of Saul Zaentz, about the only man with more success at the Oscars than the Weinsteins. Saul Zaentz doesn’t produce many films but when he does they tend to do well, in fact out of only nine productions three have bagged the Best Picture award - One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and of course The English Patient.
The presence of such heavyweight producing power was just as well because The English Patient had two major hurdles to overcome - one was adapting a book most people considered ‘unfilmable’ and the other was the relative inexperience of its writer/director, Anthony Minghella. Minghella had come on to the scene six years earlier with the ghostly love story Truly Madly Deeply and since then had made only one other film, the perhaps not quite so wonderful Mr. Wonderful. In fairness to Minghella he didn’t write Mr. Wonderful and he no doubt took the gig in an effort to get more directorial experience because up until then he was known primarily as a writer. This would prove crucial because the most difficult task was finding a way to adapt Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel into a coherent film. Ondaatje had started out as a poet and the novel of The English Patient was more like a tone poem with a great deal of internalised dialogue and non-linear narrative. Minghella thought he knew how to best approach the adaptation and Zaentz and the Weinsteins were convinced enough to green light the production.
Given his relative lack of experience Minghella was wise enough to surround himself with talented people, many of whom he would work with again on his later films. Principal among these collaborators were Walter Murch who would have the responsibility of piecing together the film’s complex narrative, John Seale who would be responsible for capturing the beautiful desert vistas on film and Gabriel Yared whose multi-ethnic score would hold the entire film together. All three would be rewarded with Oscars, twice in the case of Murch who also oversaw the sound design.
Casting was going to be paramount to the film’s success and here Minghella was able to resist calls from the studio to use stars and instead chose actors who could inhabit their roles. As the titular ‘English Patient’ Minghella chose the up and coming Ralph Fiennes and he proved to be remarkable in the part, no one can play suppressed emotion like Fiennes, for further evidence just look a his performance in The Constant Gardner. Fiennes had to endure hours of prosthetics in order to look like a burn victim but his performance still managed to make it through the layers of latex. Incidentally the make-up was provided by the Jim Henson Company with whom Minghella had worked as a writer on their Storyteller series. Of course famously Fiennes’s character is not actually English but is a Hungarian count called Laszlo de Almasy and was in fact based on an actual person.
For the two main female roles Minghella chose Kristen Scott Thomas as the doomed Katharine Clifton and French actress Juliette Binoche as Hana, the character who nurses Almasy and whose own story runs parallel to the flashbacks. Apparently Demi Moore lobbied heavily for the role of Katherine but thankfully Minghella went for the relatively unknown Scott Thomas and was rewarded with a sublime performance. Scott Thomas has never looked more beautiful and her portrayal is filled with longing, guilt and pain. She was nominated for Best Actress at that year’s Academy Awards but lost out to Frances McDormand’s wonderful performance in Fargo. Outside of her native France, Juliette Binoche was best known for The Unbearable Lightness Of Being but by simply changing Hana from a Canadian to a French Canadian Minghella was able to explain away her accent. Binoche’s character is the key to the whole film and in many ways she holds the entire complex structure together as she overcomes her own grief. In reality Binoche’s character is actually the female lead and it might have been some clever maneuvering on the part of the Weinsteins that saw her nominated as Best Supporting Actress and thus avoiding going up against McDormand. It certainly worked because Binoche was the only actor to take home the gold that night, with Fiennes sadly losing out to Geoffrey Rush in Shine. It always seems to be like that on Oscar night, with showy performances trumping subtlety.
For the other main roles Minghella cast Willem Dafoe as the thumbless spy Caravaggio, Naveen Andrews (who would later find fame as Sayid in Lost) as the Sikh sapper Kip and Colin Firth as Katherine’s cuckold husband Geoffrey. Dafoe brings a wonderful intensity to the part of the vengeful Caravaggio, a character whose past is intertwined with that of Almasy and whose ultimate act of forgiveness releases both of them from their pain. Andrews is also excellent in his portrayal of Kip, a Sikh officer who has to contend with the obvious stress of bomb disposal and the inherent racism during those last days of the British Empire. It is his relationship with Hana that provides some of the most romantic scenes in The English Patient and are a counterpoint to the flashbacks of Almasy’s destructive and violent relationship with Katherine. Colin Firth’s role of Geoffrey can be seen as rather unrewarding but importantly he is a decent man who genuinely loves his wife and by constantly reminding us of this fact Minghella prevents us from ever really siding with the adulterous couple.
The film itself primarily takes place in a ruined Italian monastery towards the end of the Second World War and it is here that Hana is nursing Almasy who is too ill to be moved. At the start of the film Hana learnt that her boyfriend had been killed and subsequently her best friend was also killed by a mine so in her grief she elects to stay with Almasy. Because of all the explosive devices left by the retreating Germans, Kip arrives to clear them with his team of sappers, which includes Kevin Whately who played Lewis on Inspector Morse, a series that Minghella also worked on as a writer. Into this group arrives the mysterious Caravaggio who appears to be working with the Italian resistance and suspects that Almasy may be a traitor for whom he has been searching. Whilst Hana develops a relationship with Kip, Caravaggio questions Almasy to discover if he is indeed the man who showed the Germans the route through the desert when they first invaded Egypt.
This represents the other major story thread in The English Patient and revolves around the relationship between Almasy and Katherine in Egypt before the outbreak of war. This story is told entirely in flashbacks and with forty transitions between the flashbacks and the present the film itself is a complex mosaic. To try to avoid confusing the audience Minghella and Murch cleverly used visual or audio cues to transition from one scene to the next. For example a piece of music or a sound effect will aid the transition from one scene to another and in one particularly beautiful transition we go from an aerial shot of undulating sand dunes to the creases in the sheets of Almasy’s bed at the monastery.
This approach of connecting two images or sounds doesn’t just apply to the transitions, the film is full of such allusions like Kip’s turban reminding us of a traditional Arab headdress or Hungarian singing that sounds almost Arabic. In the scene where Almasy and Katherine finally sleep together Almasy kneels before her, almost as if he is praying whilst outside in the Cairo streets the Muslim faithful are being called to evening prayers.
Whilst its desert locations and wartime setting clearly remind us of Lawrence of Arabia, Minghella sensibly avoids any direct comparisons and even shoots in a ratio of 1.85:1 rather than the more epic widescreen format. This of course might also be due to budgetary constraints which give the film a more intimate feel; in fact it was once described as a war film without any war. The only real war scenes are during the German invasion of Tobruk which leads to Caravaggio’s capture and torture at the hands of Jurgen Prochnow, playing an annoyed German major in a nasty little cameo.
The monastery exteriors were shot in Italy and all the interiors were shot at Cinecitta Studios just outside Rome. Whilst the artistry of the sets can’t be denied they often have a slightly artificial feel that is made all the more obvious on Blu-ray and gives the film a certain theatricality. The Egyptian exteriors were actually shot in Tunisia and in his commentary track Minghella recounts how difficult it was to shoot in the desert where nothing stays the same and the sands were always shifting. Ironically since they were trying to create the image extreme desert heat it was actually freezing and the situation wasn’t helped by Minghella breaking his ankle a few days into principal photography.
Interestingly Minghella’s first cut of The English Patient was over four hours long but he and Murch managed to whittle that down to a more manageable 162 minutes. As is often the case with adaptations of novels, there were just too many characters and some found themselves on the cutting room floor. There was also a large scene at the end where the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima reaches the monastery and Kip wonders what the point is of defusing small bombs when there is now one that can destroy an entire city. Minghella cut it because in reality people at the time were just glad the war was over and didn’t contemplate the implications of the atomic age until much later. Spoiler Warning: However the removal of that scene did allow Minghella and Murch to fix a problem that had arisen during editing. They realised that when Almasy confesses to Caravaggio that he showed the Germans the path through the desert in a desperate and futile attempt to save Katherine, Hana wasn’t present. Since it is her that administers - at Almasy’s request - the fatal morphine injection that releases him from his physical and emotional pain, she needed to hear this confession. To address this problem Murch added a scene earlier in the film that established where Hana’s room was in relation to Almasy’s and then used footage of Juliette Binoche from the cut scene with Kip agonising over Hirohima to make it appear as though she is listening to Almasy’s confession. The wonders of film editing. Spoiler End
The finished film is an incredibly rewarding experience with a literate and intelligent script, excellent performances from the whole cast, beautiful cinematography and restrained and tasteful direction. Despite the complex structure and the frequent transitions the film is never confusing thanks to some clever editing and the brilliant use of sound, images and music. Upon its release The English Patient was a remarkable success earning over $230 million worldwide and winning nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Production Design. Whilst Minghella was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay he didn’t win which is surprising considering how difficult the book was to adapt. And who did he lose to? Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade...
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