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 Ralph Fiennes.
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 materials.
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 hoping for.
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 navigation.
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 Invasions.
Of The 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.