A disfigured English-speaking man (Ralph Fiennes) is being cared for by a nurse (Juliette Binoche) in Italy during World War 2. Whilst being moved his condition worsens, so she cares for him in the ruins of a monastery where they are joined by some bomb disposal technicians (Naveen Andrews and Kevin Whately) and a thumb-less Canadian (Willem Dafoe). All the while the man struggles to remember who he is, recalling his past sharing an affair with a British woman (Kristen Scott Thomas) married to one of the man’s colleagues (Colin Firth).
With the Oscars coming up, it seemed fitting to re-visit one of the past Best Picture winners that’s also on the 1001 List. If this year’s awards are anything like the ones that took place in 1997, then this year’s winner will be whichever film nominated is the most boring (which, from what I’ve heard, might well be The Revenant, but I’ve not seen it yet). Dear me but The English Patient is dull! I let my partner pick the film we watched last weekend, this was her choice (she rather likes it and has seen it numerous times) and I was fast asleep inside of half an hour. It’s so drearily tedious, following the tiniest minutiae of these feature-less non-characters I care oh so little about.
I think it’s the plot. There’s nothing to any of the plot strands that grabs my attention in any way. Ralph Fiennes’ character is dying, Juliette Binoche’s nurse Hana knows he is, and is caring for him in those last days. Eventually he’ll die, and she’ll move on with her life. There are no stakes, no ticking clock, nothing to culminate to other than his inevitable demise. The addition of Dafoe’s David Caravaggio, who seems to know more about Fiennes than the man does himself, adds nothing because he’s still going to die at some point. Hana’s relationship with Naveen Andrews’ Kip adds something, I suppose, especially in one memorable sequence that essentially trolls the audience with how much set-up there is for an outcome that comically doesn’t pan out, but that’s about it. Similarly the flashbacks to the man’s meeting and affair with Kristen Scott Thomas’ Katharine Clifton has the same sense of inevitability that of course the two will have a relationship together. Her husband is a bit of a dick, they always seem to end up alone together and oh my word I don’t care about any of it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to stay awake during a film that moves as slowly as this with no likeable characters or engaging story-lines? It’s unbearable. I lost count of the amount of times I had to skip back to re-watch segments I’d drifted off during, and that’s even having watched it in two sittings.
I can at least partly praise the film on behalf of some of the performances. KST is perhaps the highlight, bringing a level of confidence and interest that someone could plausibly fall for in close proximity, but Fiennes, in the flashbacks at least, seems to be playing a robot. There’s little to no chemistry between them, but how could there be considering he’s an emotionless husk formed by human hand? He’s much better in his bedridden scenes, wherein the make-up that creates the burned skin on his face is great. It’s a shame his hands are so often visible, because they look like a pair of burned-effect rubber gloves. I’m pretty sure it’s never happened before, so I’d quite like to see Fiennes play very much against type as a slob. He’s always so sophisticated and refined, just once I’d like to see him a bit less dignified. Even if it’s a cameo. A Brad Pitt in True Romance kind of thing. That’s make me happy.
Juliette Binoche took home the only acting Oscar for the film in the Best Supporting category, which surprised me given how little I thought she had to do. Also, her character annoyed me intensely as, in an early scene, she finds out from an off-hand remark from a patient that her soldier boyfriend passed away the day before, yet this is never mentioned or referred to ever again. Granted this could show strength of character on her part, but it feels like aa moment written in for the sake of it, not to add to any kind of character development or story relevance.
There are some stunning performances and an unintentionally hilarious scene in which a romantic tryst is rendered comical by way of the accompanying rendition of Silent Night being played on a set of bagpipes, but overall this is just a drag. It’s a small-scale epic, showing tiny stories on a grand canvas, and that just results in a lot of wasted space.
Choose Life 5/10