“How can you ever smile, as if your life hadn’t capsized?”
An Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress. Nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Plus a few other wins in technical categories. That’s a pretty great achievement for any movie. And it should be a sign of a great movie that will be remembered for a long, long time. But not even 20 years ago, The English Patient snagged all of these awards, a shit load of critical praise, as well as a shit load of box office cash. And for all that, I don’t see The English Patient as particularly revered or even remembered today.
I’m sure people who saw it and loved it then still love it. It’s not as if time has revealed it to be a bad movie. But it’s not really one of those classics that makes people seem appalled when they find out that you’ve never seen it. I know that I’ve never once felt like I’ve been missing anything from my movie watching credentials by never seeing The English Patient. So what made me finally watch it after almost 20 years of not giving a crap? It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and The English Patient popped up on cable. Now if that’s not the impetus for a passionate movie review, I don’t know what is.
It’s the waning days of the Second World War, and French Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) is caring for a badly burned and disfigured patient named Almasay (Ralph Fiennes). Claiming to have no memory of who he was before the accident that left him scarred from head to toe, the Allies are allowing him to recover under their care, but they’re not convinced he’s not a Nazi. An accusation that comes under closer scrutiny when Canadian Intelligence agent Carravagio (Willem Dafoe) arrives.
Eventually, Almasay starts to tell the story of how he ended up in a fiery plane crash. Pre war, he was just your average Belgian Count and cartographer, helping map Africa. On his latest expedition he meets Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) Clifton. It’s not long before Almasay and Katherine are balls’ deep in passionate affair. Ramifications of which will only get more complicated once the war kicks off in earnest and Almasay’s maps of the desert become extremely valuable to the Allies and the Axis.
Here’s the thing with The English Patient, now that I’ve finally seen it, I totally get why it won so many awards and made so much cash. It’s epic and sweeping and it would have been very easy to get caught up in watching it on the big screen. But having said all of that, I also totally get why it’s not really talked about today or held up as one of the great movies of the 90s. Because for all of its epic sweep, it’s a pretty trashy romance story at its core. So as much as it hit audiences hard back then, there’s not much to stick with you after the fact.