What can I say about this Academy Award Winning dog? It is one of those films, like Carrington (Christopher Hampton, 1995), or The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1995), that seems to get audiences in through a vague combination of beautiful photography, pretty costumes and art direction, somewhat witty, poetic, profound-sounding lines of dialogue spoken by rather British actors, and, above all, an extremely sanctified and acclaimed literary source – in this case, Michael Ondaatje's novel. Here again, we see how so-called low or popular culture has immense difficulty extricating itself from extremely middlebrow standards of quality and taste.
Occasionally in this lifeless exercise you get the sense – from some line, or some portentous, overwrought symbolic image – that there are deep themes buried somewhere back in the novel that never reach proper expression in the film. We hear, for instance, these choice words: "New lovers are nervous and tender but they smash everything, for the heart is an organ of fire". It's a fistful of mixed metaphors, but I scribbled it down in the dark anyway. Where is all this love, smashing and fire in the movie itself? As a film about romance, it is weak and cloying.
There are two main love stories in the film, that of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, and that of Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews. Both stories are bloodless, passionless, and depend on the worst kind of sentimentality. Long ago, Ralph gave Kristin a trinket; noticing it around her neck years later, he comments on it, and she avows, as she swoons in voluptuous sickness, "yes, you fool, I've always loved you!" Later, as she lies dying, she writes a grandiloquent little text, and Ralph carries it around crumpled and precious, forever more. In some other film, these memorialised, fetishished tokens of love might have moved or touched me; here, they just annoyed and sickened me.
The film uses a terribly unwieldy flashback structure – something that curses many recent high-literary adaptations, even better ones than this, like The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993). Dying Ralph Fiennes lolls about in his sick bed, and when he hears some magic word, or some trigger sound we fly back to the past for some long flashback, which doesn't play like it's from his point of view, or anybody's.
Throughout The English Patient, we keep getting glimpses of big, serious themes: the morality of war, the nature of nations, how to square the personal and the political. Writer-director Anthony Minghella implacably evades every one of these issues. Willem Dafoe shows up to punish Ralph for his complicity with a wartime enemy, a complicity that lead to the hundreds of deaths. But this is another film that actually cares nothing about mass human death: all it cares about is its pathos-laden hero, and 'what he did for love'. I'm all for stories that show the motor of human history being driven by personal passions and complications – that's what I wanted from Evita (Alan Parker, 1996), although I didn't get it. But The English Patient is not persuasive, merely evasive.
Finally, there's that 'great image' that so many reviewers have praised: the aerial view of a desert landscape that resembles the contours of a human body. It's a nice image first time you see it. It's not so good when you see it again and again, and it's especially not so good when Kristin Scott Thomas has to spell the significance of it out for us, in one of those very literary speeches: "Our bodies are the true countries, not the things you draw on maps ... ".
Countries, bodies, borders and maps: it's all so chic, but The English Patient is the kind of dreadful film that gives intellectual fashion a bad name.
© Adrian Martin March 1997