Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The English Patient

I’d rather be horribly burned in a plane crash than sit through this film again.

MADOX: I have to teach myself not to read too much into everything. It comes from too long having to read so much into hardly anything at all.

This quote from The English Patient unwittingly encapsulates the film: both are long-winded, awkwardly worded, and pretentious. “Hardly anything at all” perfectly describes the film, and “reading so much” into it perfectly describes the film’s fans. “Too long” is how long it takes to watch this movie. “Teach myself” is what I have to do to avoid films like this in the future. “Hardly” is how much I enjoyed “it.” “It” is “not” “so much” good!
The English Patient is another in a long line of films that are popular for no demonstrable reason. People rhapsodize about them with generic adjectives like “romantic” and “beautiful” and “deep,” and will not shut up until all their friends have seen the movie too. These films win Oscars, often taking that trophy from other, more deserving films.

So the SotC parade that started with The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments, and limped along with Titanic and Gladiator, now comes to a grinding halt with the questionable romance and slow-moving adventure that is The English Patient.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Hana (Juliette Binoche) is a nurse in World War II. An English patient (Ralph Fiennes) who is horribly burned (but may or may not be English) is brought to her hospital. He suffers from amnesia (or does he?) When the hospital is evacuated, Hana must care for the mysterious man in an abandoned monastery because he is not to be moved.

This is when the flashbacks begin. We learn the burned man was an aviation enthusiast (or was he?) who flew planes over Northern Africa with fellow aviation enthusiasts Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas – or are they?)

The patient (who may or may not be English) has an affair with Katherine. When they are found out, her husband Geoffrey takes her up in a plane and deliberately crashes it in front of her lover. Geoffrey dies; Katherine is wounded. In trying to get help, our cuckholding hero (who may or may not be our hero) runs afoul of the authorities. Katherine dies. While attempting to fly her corpse back to England, his plane is shot down and he is horribly burned. Katherine remains dead.

Back at the monastery, the English patient (who may or may not be English but is definitely a douchebag) convinces nurse Hana to administer a lethal overdose of morphine. He dies. Hana gets in a truck and looks at trees.

That is about it.

Am I immune to the questionable charms of sweeping romantic adventures? I think not. I am immune to many things (sarcasm and bullets) but I can still enjoy a good romance. However, The English Patient…


I am sorry. I do not often fall asleep in mid-column like that. I am also surprised because I should be well rested after the four or five short catnaps I took during the movie.

Does my antipathy toward TEP come down to length? I do not think so. I have enjoyed the shit out of plenty of films appreciably longer – Gone With The Wind and Shoah to name two. No, the length of The English Patient is annoying because its length serves no clear purpose. This story, this tone, and these themes gain nothing from this glacial pace…


So sorry.

In fact, a memorable Seinfeld episode was constructed around the premise that the Elaine character hated the film, but that friends kept dragging her to see it. It ends with Elaine screaming at the movie screen “Die already!”

Did I mention how life affirming that some people feel the film to be?

Critics have compared the film to Casablanca because both films are sweeping romances set against the backdrop of World War II. They also share the desert setting of French Morocco and Northern Africa. But that is where the comparisons end. First of all, Casablanca is more concise, telling basically the same story in an hour less. Think of the things one could do with a whole hour! Why, with that extra hour, one could write a nasty blog post about how much one despises every excruciating minute of The English Patient.

Second of all, The English Patient does not understand romance and sacrifice nearly as well as Casablanca. The English Patient is much more cynical. If the plot of Casablanca went anything like the plot of The English Patient, Humphrey Bogart would end up with Ingrid Bergman, but she would be dead; Paul Henried would deliberately crash the plane at the movie’s end; and Claude Rains would lose his thumbs.

Spoiler Alert!

Like many bad and simplistic films, The English Patient features characters who are allowed to be only one thing. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas fall in love simply because they are the two best-looking people in the film. Also, Fiennes’ character is kind of an asshole, and Scott Thomas is an aloof bitch, so we all know that they are PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER. And we know that Katherine will stray from her marriage to Geoffrey, because Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth, reprising his popular role as “rich, wrong guy.”

I also accuse this film of having a willfully confusing dramatic structure. The actual story is pretty straightforward; what is gained by the confusing back-and-forth structure of flashbacks and memories? Is the film making a statement about the illusory nature of memory or the transitory nature of love? I think not. I think the film is making a statement about the limits of an audience’s patience. An English patience.

Sorry, I could not resist! Oh damn.


Here is another wonderful gauge of a great film: it should contain memorable dialogue. I am not suggesting that this is the only metric, but surely dialogue must count for something. The English Patient does not contain a single memorable line of dialogue.


Patient: Why are you so good to me?

Nurse: I’m a nurse.

Does Juliette Binoche’s character not understand that the Ralph Fiennes’ character KNOWS that she is a nurse? They met in a hospital. She was wearing a nurse’s uniform. Or is that line intended for the audience? We have just watched Juliette Binoche play a nurse for the better part of an hour; it would be a pretty neat trick on us if she wound up NOT BEING a nurse.

This line of dialogue is a moron’s idea of cleverness. Binoche delivers the line like she is Dorothy Parker at the fucking Algonquin Round Table. This line also underscores the fact that, in this film, Binoche is allowed to be only one thing: a nurse.

So there is The English Patient in a nutshell: endless, wrong-headed, confusing, forgettable, pretentious, and trite. It all adds up to OSCAR.

THE TERRIBLE AND TRAGIC ENDING: In 1996 The English Patient won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It stole that Oscar from a little film that you may have heard of called Fargo.


  1. JB - I hope you're not disheartened by the lack of comments on your fine article - I think we all probably just forgot that you can't actually see us nodding our heads in agreement or shaking our fists at God for the outrage that is The English Patient beating Fargo for best picture.

    You know how you don't need to actually stab yourself in the face to know it would hurt? That's why I don't need to actually watch The English Patient to know it would make me start cutting myself.

  2. I didn't comment on JB's column because he (and his 'copy editor') pretty much said all that needs to be said. JB, think of the lack of response to this column as a long-ass parade of affirmative-shaking heads reading your thoughts and agreeing wholeheartedly with every point you (and your 'schmoopy') make.

    "The English Patient" has come to define 'Oscar bait' movies in modern-day Hollywood better than any movie since. So, among those of us that know (i.e. 'Cabin in the Wood' dissidents :-P), its reputation couldn't sink or get any lower. We can only help soil it for those that don't know better and think 'Best Picture Winner' automatically means it's a good movie (most are, but some sneak through the gigantic backdoor loophole that is Harvey Weinstein's butt-crack).

  3. Thanks, Sol. I appreciate your comments. I no longer judge the quality of my work by the number of comments; I judge the quality of my work by the nickel bag of heroin Patrick gives me if he is pleased with it.

    (He seldom is.)

  4. Well said fatboy. At least Ralph got to fuck that pretty bimbo lady. As soon as you saw her loser husband you knew he was a card carrying cuckold.
    The movie was tedious and overly long and the story was so simple that I didn't understand it.
    I liked the part where he carries her out of the cave: "Wahhh, wahhhh, I'll never have another piece of ass like her." Why DID she have to die? There wasn't a mark on her.
    The night before last I watched 'The Natural' and now I hate Robert Redford all over again. I got a lot of bad movies. I'm on a budget. Actually the most consistent bang for the buck is a Steven Seagal movie. Come on! Don't be a snob!

    1. Bodypro8-- Glad you found my column. Search the site-- Patrick has written several articles about Seagal. Enjoy.

  5. I’m here to help you appreciate this movie. It doesn’t have to be your favorite movie, but to be a competent film aficionado, you must at least appreciate it.

    I’ll start with your review…

    Your review is mostly cheap bad-mouthing instead of specific critiques – bad form right away for a film reviewer. But I culled out what vague critiques you made here:

    “It’s not concise.” What part(s) would you cut? I can’t think of any part in the film that could be cut without changing the whole thing. The test of conciseness is not minutes, but relevancy and redundancy. Every scene passes both tests. . .unless you can name specific scenes otherwise.

    “It does not understand romance and sacrifice nearly as well as Casablanca.” Well, Casablanca doesn’t understand tragedy as well as TEP. Who wins? TEP is not a romance (although it has romantic elements); it’s a tragedy. It’s not fundamentally about romance and sacrifice. On the other hand, Casablanca is a romance. Apples and Oranges.

    “It’s more cynical than Casablanca.” Again, it’s a tragedy so of course it will be cynical. Besides, is cynicism a measure of quality? Macbeth is far more cynical than TEP. Does that make TEP superior?

    “Like many bad and simplistic films, The English Patient features characters who are allowed to be only one thing.” This is just blatantly wrong. All the characters change. They all have singular personalities, yes, but they all have character arcs. It seems you’re confusing characterization with character. They all go through moral crisis that forever changes their character. And this film is anything but simplistic. It renders one of the most compelling and meaningful moral dilemmas I’ve seen in a while - to have to choose between your lover and the greater good. If that’s simplistic, then you’re saying Casablanca is simplistic because that’s the same central dilemma it has. (Albeit with different choices made.)

    It has a “confusing dramatic structure” and nothing “is gained by the confusing back-and-forth structure of flashbacks and memories.” First off, “confusing” is your own subjective experience. It wasn’t confusing for me. But “nothing is gained by the structure” is just blatantly wrong. What is gained by the structure is added suspense. Hanging over the flashbacks is the accusation that TEP was a spy. How could that extra layer be achieved other than through the use of parallel time lines? (And say, how can a movie be simplistic yet confusing?)

    Finally, you critique the dialogue, and this time you give a specific example: “I am a nurse.” You wonder why she says this when it’s obvious she’s a nurse. I think you’re missing the point of that line. It’s not to inform the audience of her profession, but to inform us of her motivation. The story required a motivation for her to devote herself to TEP in the way she did. In a simple and concise way, we get it. It’s like asking a Secret Service character “why did you take a bullet for the President?” We’re told all we need to know about the character’s motivation in one simple sentence: “Because I’m a Secret Service Agent.” Is “I am a nurse” a piece of great dialogue? No, but it passes the tests of conciseness and meaningfulness, so it’s not horrible as you say.

    I was going to go beyond your review, but I’ve already written way more than I planned, so I’ll leave it there.

    In conclusion, TEP is a rich, meaningful, and superbly executed film achievement. I would recommend studying it closer and you will appreciate it more and more.

    (PS: Fargo was a fine film, yes, but not on the scale of TEP, which was just a more ambitious undertaking and the greater technical achievement.)

  6. The English Patient moved me like no other film has, it has stayed with me since i last saw it in 1996. Your review is ignorant and narrow-minded, this film's plot is simple because it's hefty layers and metaphors are rich and complex.

    1. Thankfully there is one soul who has made an intelligent, learned comment to this horrific review. This movie was a brilliant piece of filmmaking and did justice to the Booker prizing-winning novel--if not, the underlying post-colonial message.

  7. TEP is too high-class, sophisticated for some viewers. Regular, commoners cannot understand it. I just feel sorry for folks who cant appreciate a good movie like "The English Patient", or "Whats eating Gilbert Grape" (a very "boring" film according to some ranting film critics).

  8. I am 64 years old and have enjoyed all kinds of movies for many years now - BUT - The English Patient was not one of them. When I first saw the Seinfeld Episode where Elaine hates the film - I said thank God someone else get's it - And now, reading your review for the first time after all these years since I had the misfortune of sitting through this film - I feel completely justified - you expressed what I feel. THANK YOU!!! Pay no attention to the pretentiousness of the person "trying" to get you to "understand" and "appreciate" this film by dissecting your review - That person used the word redundancy - that was the only thing he got right!

    1. Thank you, you have just warmed my little black heart. All of the other "Anonymouses" seem to hate me. You're the only good one in the bunch!

    2. Ditto. My husband and I were baffled at the acclaim the film got when it came out, and felt we’d wasted our money AND New Years Eve, the only night of the year we go to the theatre.

  9. Even though I agree with your view that this was not a good or even a passable romance , I think describing the movie as a romance is completely missing its point.. What I took from this movie and really admired was the blurring of boundaries and loyalties in the war, the main character never actually took a stand on the war, and in the end he sold out for his personal gains.. He sees himself as a cartographer beyond borders.. If u come right down to it, countries are just man made concepts. And war is war, your loyalty is chosen by the soil u are born in, not exactly your choice, and people are gonna die on both sides. The hero literally showed Nazis the way down to deserts but we are made to go on the journey with him where we come to see his decision as one made by a desperate man rather than as a Nazi sympathizer..

  10. The English Patient was a perfect example of "The Emperors New Clothes." The only reason there are so many people who claim to like the film is because they are liars and frauds who want to be included with the smug and pretentious a**holes. I hated all the characters and just like Elaine, I wanted Ralph to die. When all the characters are self-absorbed and superficial snobs, it is not possible for a film to be a tragedy. They could have saved time and had them all blow up on the plane

  11. This review... is very entertaining. No doubt more entertaining than The English Patient. Watching it sounds like my worst nightmare.

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  13. I found this post after watching the heap of garbage, known as the English Patient to most, for the first time.

    My beef wasn't with the issues listed. Yes, it was unnecessarily long. Yes, nothing really happened. No, the dialog wasn't memorable. But those aren't deal breakers for me.

    What makes me enraged about this film is the idiotic "love" story. Those two narcissits do not love each other. It's obvious from when they're dancing and she points out that his behavior is predatory, only to have his silence confirm it. Then he stares her down, making the whole thing uncomfortable for her and the viewers. So why in hell does she fall for him after that?

    They had sex and make-out scenes that looked as if neither of them have seen the opposite sex naked before. And they do it everywhere. They do it during the Christmas celebration in a back room that's somehow supposed to be romantic and sensual. But jeez, what a turn off. It was disturbing to say the least. Then at the point he goes into his rage at dinner she should have realized how foolish she has been, that this was nothing more than her wanting to feel desired and fulfilling some fairytale romance fantasy of hers. At that point she should have realized that she has a devoted husband who loves her and treats her well (up until he tried to kill them all of course). But what does this unrealistically dumb broad do? "Of course I wear it dummy. I always wear it. I've always loved you." Or whatever unrealistic bullshit she was trying to sell me.

    I kept waiting and waiting, thinking, "it can't possibly be about their love affair as if this is romantic." And when it dawned on me that this movie was most definitely going to be that ridiculous, like Elaine, all I wanted was to see him die.

  14. The English Patient is one of the worst movies ever made. Tiresome and tedious, snobby and snotty, narcissistic characters and wimpy actors.
    Its so pleasant to find others see through this pretentious film. Fargo is much better.

  15. This review isn't good. I won't reiterate most of the critical responses. And whether the dialogue was good is also a matter of opinion. Some of the Willem Dafoe dialogue is excellent. That scene where he loses his thumbs....how could you fall asleep through that. Actually, I will reiterate one point. The reviewer clearly didn't understand that the movie was structured to be suspenseful (and at least was for me). So I understand why the reviewer was sleeping so much through the movie. I do agree with the comment from July 23, 2016 suggesting that the romance part was written poorly and didn't make sense at many times. It was never really clear why they loved each other. I watched the movie again. It seemed that she was impressed by his monograph (and therefore his intellect?). You can imply physical attraction. Couldn't find much else. But that doesn't ruin this movie. It is just one flaw.

    1. "...Is a matter of opinion." You could have stopped there. It covers the entirety of your comment. Also the review.

    2. ...aaaand that's why most dissenting comments here come from "Anonymous". Disagree, get dismissed. Not as open of a dialogue here as we sometimes like to think.

    3. What part of "this review isn't good" invites open dialogue? I've had plenty of people disagree with things that I've written, but I would suggest there's a way to talk about it that invites conversation.

    4. I would argue there can be a difference between polite, constructive criticism and rude criticism. This seems to skirt closer to the latter.

  16. This column is both hilarious and exactly on target, especially the part about some of the dialogue being a moron's idea of cleverness

  17. I really enjoy it when cool people don't get metaphors or atmosphere in a movie, ha ha

  18. At last I have found someone who agrees with me!! I'd much prefer to join you in being horribly burned in a plane crash than sit through this film again also.