In retrospect, The English Patient looks like such a natural awards magnet, a quintessential prestige picture of the highest magnitude. In the moment, though, it seemed utterly improbable. It is based on a novel, by Michael Ondaatje, that was revered but roundly considered unadaptable, and the writer-director who set himself to the task had only two small-scale features to his name, the most recent of which was a commercial and critical flop. There were all sorts of reasons to believe the film would be one of many of the arthouse offerings that blasted out of Miramax only to vanish quickly when the initial response was tepid. Instead, The English Patient took hold (because it’s excellent). It was constantly in the discussion as various dispensers of film trophies cited their winners, building momentum until Oscar night, when it won in nine categories, including Best Picture. Three members of its cast were nominate at that ceremony. Two of them, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas had to politely clap for other people, but the third, Juliette Binoche, won.
Binoche had been acting in films for around fifteen years at that point, most of them in her native France with the occasional foray into English-language films that left select, refined audiences dazzled and staggered. The English Patient was arguably the biggest movie she’d made that point, and inarguably the biggest outside of her homeland. She later acknowledged that she was notably nervous as production began, crediting the man literally calling the shots for helping her overcome that anxiety.
“I was so frightened,” Binoche told NPR. “I don’t know why. I think it had to do with the challenge of it. There was something that I was playing this role scared me. I don’t know exactly what it was but there was an inside feeling that made me shake. And then the second month of shooting, I was totally confident because I was in his arms, somehow, in Anthony Minghella’s arms, because Anthony Minghella was a force.”
The care and precision Minghella brought to the filmmaking doesn’t seem all that forceful, at least not in the most superficial ways. A filmmaker as a force is more commonly associated with those who operate with overt braggadocio, such as Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. But it obvious takes the same sort of bulldozing certainty to make a movie of intricate, intense emotion and to help actors operate naturally within that dramatic timbre. As Hana, a French-Canadian nurse who cares for a severely burned man (Fiennes) during the waning days of World War II, Binoche is sort of the stand-in for the audience. She listens to her patient as he slowly shares his story, entryways into flashbacks to an illicit affair that played out as the threat of global conflict mounts. As she learns of this past, she falls into her own romance, with a Sikh man (Naveen Andrews) who clears mines for the British-Indian army.
Binoche doesn’t get the same meaty opportunities as her nominated co-stars in the film, mostly because their tragic love is often dramatized with dialogue that plays like terse, tantalizing poetry. Instead, Binoche is essentially called upon to ground a film that could otherwise easily waft into artful affectation. Fiennes and Scott Thomas exist in the enhanced emotion of memory; Binoche is committed to the real while playing the same depth of feeling. Her work is less showy, but, like her director, she’s a force.
Among the film’s prizes was an Academy Award for Minghella honoring his directing. (His adapted screenplay, which some maintained was the more significant creative feat, was bested by Sling Blade, part of a string of writing wins for actors in the nineteen-nineties. That film is great, too.) He immediately vaulted onto the A-list of filmmakers. These days, that status mostly results in tedious questions about personal willingness to preside over a Marvel movie. Back then, it still afforded a director the chance to pursue whatever significant work they wanted to. Minghella’s next film was The Talented Mr. Ripley, which grossed a little more domestically than The English Patient and earned five Oscar nominations. Nonetheless, it was seen as a mild disappointment, though now I think consensus is solidifying around the determination it’s his best film. Minghella moved on to another novel that, like The English Patient, was recently published and fiercely adored. This time, it was hardly considered unadaptable.
Cold Mountain, written by Charles Frazier, was a sensation, winning the National Book Award and selling around three million copies as it settled in for a long haul at or near the top of the bestseller lists. Telling the story of a Civil War soldier’s long, arduous, and eventual trudge home, the book is structurally the opposite of The English Patient, rendered with a narrative clarity that can almost make it seem two ticks away from a screenplay treatment. Minghella, now the premiere adaptor of lauded literature was a natural fit for the film version, and the episodic nature of the lead character’s journey meant there were a battalion of small but juicy roles that he could fill. Into these come-and-go parts, Minghella populated a murderer’s row of character actors: Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman (reunited with the director after The Talented Mr. Ripley, where he stole every scene he was in), Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Natalie Portman (when she was just starting to transition to adult roles), Eileen Atkins (fresh of a turn in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park that deserved an Oscar nomination but didn’t get it), and Melora Walters.
For his two leads, the soldier and his pining wife struggling to maintain the family farm, Minghella cast Jude Law (who accounted for one of those The Talented Mr. Ripley Oscar nods) and Nicole Kidman. For the showiest role, a wild woman named Ruby who is instrumental to the wife’s revival and survival of the rural homestead, Minghella cast an actress coming off back-to-back Oscar nominations: Renée Zellweger. Cold Mountain collected seven Oscar nominations, a significant number, despite missing some major categories it was expected to factor into, including Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Actress in a Leading Role. Of the seven nominations, the one win came the category for supporting actresses, which Zellweger won.
Ruby is brash, uncouth, and impatiently capable. Where the other two lead roles call for a certain amount of interiority and restraint (though Kidman, in possession of an Oscar so recently earned that it still had new award smell, inject some Streepian flutter to her performance), Ruby is pure id in a peasant dress. Accordingly, Zellweger tears into the role, adopting an Appalachian accent that’s a far juicer version of her native Texas drawl and bulldozes through scenes. An undervalued part of Zellweger’s skill set is a vanity-free willingness to hurl herself into the physicality of her performances, and that’s readily apparent in Cold Mountain.
In some ways, Zellweger’s performance is the complete opposite of Binoche’s in The English Patient. The commonality is a strengthening of the actress’s most distinctive attributes through the trust of Minghella. In particular, he gives them the space to be bold in their choices, somehow sure that the inner humanity of the characters compromised in the process. Actors were extra safe in his arms.