Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Eighteen


#18 — The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)
Almost every movie has a love story, but surprisingly few of them get love right. They have couplings by convenience, characters drawn together to fulfill the requirements of the plot, and to satisfy the desire of the audience to see pretty people swooning for one another. Saying “I love you” appears to be as meaningful as ordering some extra foam on a latte, unless of course the difficulty inherent in intoning that potent three-word combo is being played for laughs. You’d think an emotion that fuels so many storylines would be treated with a little more respect, a little more care, maybe just a touch of awe. Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient is one of those rare movies that gets it right. The overwhelming power of that feeling is laced throughout it. It sweeps people away, it swamps their souls, it compels them to make choices they otherwise wouldn’t. And in its moment of finest grace, it raises them up to discover beauty that would have otherwise gone undiscovered.

The film is an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel of the same name, a work that was largely considered too dense, nonlinear, and cerebral to be effectively brought to the screen until Minghella took his pen to it. He found the adventure within it, the romance within it, the intrigue within it, and managed to spin it all into his own dark poetry. The film moves back and forth in time as World War II bubbles, boils, and eventually simmers down to a uneasy stillness, providing the perfect backdrop for the heightened intensity of the relationships playing out onscreen. There’s a different urgency, almost a desperation, as characters find and reach out to one another, whether on the African continent that will soon become a battlefield or in an Italian countryside already scarred by war. These are intelligent people coming to terms with a world that is desperately out of sorts, staring up at the night sky and trying to will the messy stars into a workable order, always cognizant of the many minefields they must traverse to reach any sort of safety.

Minghella frames the film with an artist’s eye, demonstrating in scene after scene the levels of fraught, fragile loveliness that a camera can capture. Sometimes the imagery is dreamlike; more often it is built out of the emotions that shape dreams, the feelings lingering at the edge of memory that stealthily emerge as consciousness slips into slumber. The English Patient has the look and feel of the windswept epics of another era, when directors like David Lean and John Ford made an argument for storytelling writ large with every new release. The vastness is met with equally impressive depth in the characterizations, vividly realized in highly internalized performances, especially by Ralph Fiennes. His character is naturally reticent, a personal bearing that doesn’t change once his emotions starting roiling around within him like a load of laundry in a super-charged clothes dryer. Fiennes needs to convey the thrill and anguish while still remaining emotionally contained, his demeanor starting to crack like well-baked desert earth. Like the rest of the film, it’s a perfectly realized convergence of the vivid and grand with the tenderly intimate. The English Patient staggers with its precious ache, just like the most wrenching bouts of love itself.

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