Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Sh!#ting on the Classics: The English Patient
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!
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…
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.
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.