Once I finally got around to reading the novel ‘The English Patient’, I figured it was finally time to watch the much-acclaimed film adaptation which came out a couple of years after the book was published and which won nine Oscars the following year. The film, directed by Anthony Minghella, was a critical darling and commercially viable too, with some great casting for the roles. But how does it hold up with respect to the equally acclaimed book from which it was adapted from, a Booker winner of lasting appeal which also won the Golden Man Booker to celebrate the prize’s 50 years of winners?
In short, pretty well even if it is a bit of a different beast. In the book, the centerpiece of things was the action (or inaction) set inside the bombed-out villa on the Italian countryside and the flashback to the ‘English’ patient’s life was a strong supporting arc to explain his predicament. It was primarily the story of Hana, played here by Juliette Binoche, and the impact she has on the others who come around to the villa as they make a quasi-functional family of their own. Later in the book, the focus shifts quite a bit to the young Sikh bomb disposal expert, Kirpal Singh or Kip (here a young, vibrant Naveen Andrews looking a lot like present-day Dev Patel), including a heart-rending climax where he lays bare his inner grief at a turn of events which he felt was a general betrayal of the war’s efforts for which he was so valiantly using his skills. In the movie, perhaps predictably considering audience and commercial viabilities, the focus has shifted to make the story of the English patient and his doomed love affair as the primary driver of things, while Hana and Kip are relegated to worthy supporting acts.
The film opens up on the English patient (Ralph Fiennes) and the plane crash which resulted in his finding his way to the hospice where Hana works as a nurse, near the frontlines of World War 2. Badly burnt and his face grafted over, he doesn’t appear to recall much about who he is or what has happened. Hana is caught in a vulnerable space after she sees a close friend and colleague blown up virtually in front of her and realizing her fiancé may not be coming back alive from the frontlines. She feels a strange kinship with the patient and, realizing his fragile state doesn’t allow for him to be moved around much, decides to stay back with him at a formerly grand villa in the countryside which has been bombed out partially in the ongoing war. It is a lonely existence but soon she is joined by another figure from the war, an erstwhile thief who is now being used by the allied powers, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe). He has suspicions that the patient is not English but actually a Hungarian spy, Almasy, and tries to get his story out of him. Caravaggio himself has been disfigure by the far, a result of a torture session that left him with no thumbs and an abiding resentment against the person he feels led the Germans to him in the first place. Another person who joins the makeshift commune at the villa is the bomb disposal expert Kip, a young Sikh fighting the war on behalf of the colonial powers ruling his country at the time. It’s the dog days of the war and an uneasy alliance is formed between all of them, as the English patient slowly unfurls his story and Hana and Kip tend towards each other.
The story the patient tells is one of a doomed romance and insatiable passion, as his love affair with an Englishman’s wife, Katharine Clifton (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), results in consequences none of them perhaps foresaw and tragedy for all of them. He was an explorer, attached to the Royal Geographical Society, working the deserts on various expeditions with his team and the Cliftons were adventurous benefactors and champions for their cause, before war put paid to much further explorations in the North African deserts. They remain based in Cairo during the period and it is in these exotic lanes that the furtive romance blooms. The love sequences are some of the most intense I’ve seen on screen and conveys the hopeless desperation of two people who know they shouldn’t be together. A sandstorm in the middle of the desolate night in which they get stuck in their jeep is hauntingly picturised and captures the moment well when their feelings blossomed. The inevitable tragedy comes around the time the explorers are trying to clear out from the area in light of the war situation, but Almasy and Katharine get stuck and Almasy is forced to head out across the unforgiving terrain in search of help. From here on in, all of his actions leading up to his scarred present state and his potential betrayal were governed by the need to save his lady love irrespective of the consequences.
I know she won a supporting Oscar for it, but Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of Hana didn’t entirely work for me. This is perhaps because I have read the book and my idea of Hana was of a more brooding, silent and intense person than the relatively outwardly expressive one in the film. Naveen Andrews and Willem Dafoe were good in their roles, though I can’t help feeling that the movie’s climax lost some of its intensity with the relegating of Kip to the supporting arc and thus the change in ending. However, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas were both excellent as the doomed couple and exuded raw intensity in their portrayals.
Overall, I would say the movie is a great piece of work which should be watched for its epic scope and feel. However, don’t expect an exactly faithful recreation of the book’s mood, which was more personal and inward looking. Both versions, though, are beautiful works of arts in their own right.