I first saw The English Patient a number of years ago, when it
first came out on video. At the time, I didn't find it particularly
interesting, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Even so, it
stuck with me, and as time passed I had a hankering to see it again.
Maybe I hadn't given it a fair shake; maybe I just wasn't in the
right mood at the time; maybe it just required a bit more attention
than I'd given it the first time. So when Miramax unveiled the
Collector's Series edition, with a new anamorphic transfer, I figured
it was time to revisit The English Patient. After all, any
film that won nine Academy Awards has to have something going for it.
I'll give credit where credit is due: I did enjoy The English
Patient more on the second viewing than on the first, most likely
because I knew to expect a slow-paced and visually-focused film
rather than the narrative-based "incredible tale of passion,
intrigue and adventure" rather deceptively promised by the
advertising copy. It's a watchable movie, one that is graced by some
stunning cinematography in the outdoor desert scenes. And the frame
story with Juliette Binoche as the Canadian nurse caring for the
"English patient" does succeed in evoking the chaotic
experiences of individuals caught up in World War II, far from home.
That's about as far as I'll go, though. The English Patient is
glossy and superficially beautiful, with lavish production values and
a painstaking reproduction of World War II life in Africa and Italy,
but as a story it's not particularly compelling.
The intended narrative "hook" is clearly the mystery behind
the "English patient," a mysterious man who is found burned
beyond recognition in the desert, with his memory disrupted by the
shock of his injuries. As he's cared for by Hana (Juliette Binoche),
a nurse who is struggling to pull herself together by taking a
respite to care for the dying man, the patient recalls flashes of the
events that led up to his crash. In that way, we come to know Count
Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian involved with an international
mapping expedition, and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of
another expedition member. The relationship between Almasy and
Katharine ends up shaping their lives and the lives of those around
them, in increasingly destructive ways.
As we can see, The English Patient is a character-based film.
We have to be interested in who these people are, why they behave as
they did, and what happens to them. But in the end, the characters
nearly all remain ciphers. The relationship between Katharine and
Almasy is – or rather, should be – the emotional heart of
the story, but it never rings true. While director Anthony Minghella
effectively evokes the desolation and grandeur of the desert setting,
he falls short in showing us how these two people are attracted to
each other. We can presume that each is lonely and looking for
something to feel alive, but that's a purely intellectual reaction to
what we see; there's little shown on the screen to bring depth to
their relationship. Even in the climactic scene of the film (don't
worry, I'm not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet)
it's unclear exactly why Almasy is reacting as he does. Has he only
just realized how he feels about Katharine? Was he surprised to hear
her say what she feels for him? Again, we can ascribe reactions or
motivations to him in an effort to create a believable emotional
context for what feels like it "should" be a powerful
scene, but it's not enough. That emotional context ought to come from
the film itself, but it doesn't.
It's not as if there's no time to flesh out the characters. At
nearly three hours of running time, The English Patient is a
very long film, and it feels every minute of it. Nonetheless, it's
almost impossible to point out any areas that could have been trimmed
to make a tighter film – not because all the scenes seem
equally important to the story, but paradoxically because they all
seem equally unimportant. The English Patient is a curiously
even film; for all its plot involving passion and deception, it has
few emotional high or low points. With only a few exceptions, such as
the intriguing opening scene of the plane crash, every scene in The
English Patient could equally be trimmed, or left in, with really
very little impact on the overall film.
Possibly the best part of the film is the frame story, with Juliette
Binoche making Hana one of the few approachable characters in the
film. Binoche won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her
role, which seems odd: not that she won the award, but that it was
only as a "supporting" actress. In terms of her screen
time, it seems to me that she is more of a lead than Thomas (who was
nominated for Best Actress for her performance as Katharine, but did
not win), and in fact she has second billing in the credits after
Why does The English Patient have such a high profile? Why did
it win so many awards? One logical answer, of course, is that tastes
vary, and what seemed cold and unconvincing to me was actually
powerful and touching to other viewers. I'm sure that's the case for
at least some viewers; as with any other art form, there is no
"right" way to respond to a film. But I'll hazard a guess
that at least some of the praise for The English Patient comes
from a sort of guilty conscience... the feeling that we ought to
appreciate it. It looks beautiful; it has all the elements of a
powerful story; it's clearly aiming to strike certain emotional notes
in the viewer. Given the polish and glamor of the film, it's tempting
to nod to what The English Patient is trying to achieve and
treat it as if it really did achieve it.
But when push comes to shove, what matters is results, not intention.
The English Patient tries hard, but it just doesn't quite
succeed in what it's trying to do; it doesn't quite strike the
emotional chords that it's reaching for. It's still a visually
attractive and polished film, though, with some elements that work
reasonably well, which is what makes it still worth watching.
The English Patient: Collector's Series is a two-DVD set,
packaged in an attractive single-wide keepcase. The first disc
contains the film, and the second disc contains most of the bonus
I'd been looking forward to the new release of The English
Patient, as the only edition available had been a non-anamorphic
transfer. The new edition does offer anamorphic enhancement, but
while it's a reasonably good transfer, it's not as stunning as
viewers probably were hoping for in a high-profile title.
The image, which is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen
aspect ratio, is in general pleasing to the eye. Colors are bright
and natural-looking, and in well-lit scenes the image has a nice
vibrancy. Edge enhancement is present in some scenes but kept to a
minimum, and doesn't detract from the overall image.
However, the same can't be said for the condition of the print:
scattered print flaws and dirt appear in the image throughout the
film. There's also a substantial amount of noise in the image; it's
especially noticeable in shots with broad expanses of blue sky, as in
the desert scenes, but the noise also results in a general softening
of the image in other scenes as well. Lastly, the contrast is
consistently too heavy in darker scenes, resulting in a noticeable
loss of detail in low-light situations.
After cataloging the imperfections of the
transfer, it's worth noting that The English Patient still
looks pleasing and is certainly satisfactory: as the score I've given
it for video indicates, it's several notches above average for a DVD
transfer. It's just not the knockout transfer fans were probably
The two soundtracks on The English Patient offer an excellent
listening experience. With its additional depth, the DTS 5.1 track is
the obvious choice for viewers whose home theaters support it, but
the Dolby 5.1 track is also solid. The sound is natural-sounding and
pleasing to the ear, with dialogue and music playing their respective
roles in balance with each other. The surround effects aren't as
extensive as perhaps they could have been, but the side channels do
get used to create an immersive audio environment. The sound is clean
and clear in both soundtracks, with the DTS offering a greater degree
of depth and richness to the sound.
Spanish and French subtitles are also included.
This edition of The English Patient is certainly loaded with
special features, and will offer a considerable amount of additional
viewing time for fans of the film. The one irritating element of the
special features is that most of the material is broken up into small
bites (some as small as one or two minutes), and there are no "play
all" features, so viewers are stuck with a lot of pointless menu
Disc 1 contains two full-length audio commentaries: the first from
director Anthony Minghella, focusing on his perspective on creating
the film, and the second from Minghella along with producer Saul
Zaentz and novelist Michael Ondaatje, taking a broader look at the
making of the film.
On Disc 2, we get the bulk of the special features, mainly in the
form of short featurettes and interview clips. The first few are
relatively short, touching on various general aspects of the film.
"About Michael Ondaatje" is a set of five interview clips,
totaling about 20 minutes, with Ondaatje
and others, discussing his book and the process of making it into a
film. "From Novel to Screenplay: Interviews with Cast and Crew"
(7 minutes) is a straightforward compilation of brief interview
clips, as the title says. "The Formidable Saul Zaentz" is a
brief two-minute segment with cast and crew discussing their renowned
producer. "A Historical Look at the Real Count Almasy" is
an eight-minute piece narrated by a historian, with some real
archival footage of Almasy.
The "Filmmaker Conversations" section offers a fairly
substantial amount of interesting material on the making of the film,
through interviews with director Anthony Minghella (30 minutes),
producer Saul Zaentz (18 minutes), novelist Michael Ondaatje (7
minutes), and film editor Walter Murch (25 minutes). After this, we
get two more small featurettes, "The Work of Stuart Craig –
Production Designer" (4 minutes), and "The Eyes of Phil
Bray – Still Photographer" (3 minutes).
The next section of interest is the deleted scenes section.
Minghella's introduction reveals that this 20-minute featurette was
obviously ported over from the laserdisc; the fact that it wasn't
made specifically for DVD is perhaps also apparent in the
presentation. The section is basically a featurette; most of the
running time is taken by Minghella discussing the background to each
deleted scene, why he cut it, and so on, with the actual deleted
scenes interspersed with these segments. It's interesting, but it's
unfortunate that there's no option to watch the scenes separately.
A 53-minute documentary on the making of The English Patient
is almost the last special feature included here. It's perhaps a bit
repetitive after having seen all the other interviews, but it's
reasonably well done, offering interviews with various members of the
cast and crew.
Lastly, we get the text of three of the original reviews for The
English Patient, and trailers for My Voyage to Italy, The
Human Stain, People I Know, and The Barbarian
English Patient's nine Oscars, most of them are obviously
well-deserved ones that highlight the film's lavish production values
and attention to historical detail: Best Art Direction-Set
Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Music, and
Best Sound. Did it really merit the Best Picture on top of that?
That's certainly something that viewers can debate at their leisure.
On reflection, I find The English Patient to be watchable but
not emotionally involving, which is quite a flaw in a film that is
above all a love story. I'm glad that I watched it again for a fresh
perspective, but I don't imagine that I'll be interested in seeing it
again after this. As a DVD, The English Patient picks up a bit
more appeal, with a good (if not great) video transfer, excellent DTS
and Dolby 5.1 sound, and a very nice package of special features.
Overall, I'll suggest this as a rental for those who have never seen
the film before, and a "recommended" for fans of the film.