The Best Picture Project – The English Patient (1996)

The English Patient Poster.jpgDirected by Anthony Minghella

Screenplay by Anthony Minghella, Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje

Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Willem Dafoe.  Also featured were Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth and Jürgen Prochnow

To my mind it’s always been a hallmark of weak writing to reference the work of others, at least when it’s done for the explicit purpose of latching onto the credibility of the work of the other without actually having to create it organically yourself.  In other words, rather than actually create something on your own, you simply reach out, grab something by somebody else, shine it up a little bit and then say, “Ta da, look at what I did.”

Sleepless in seattle.jpgSleepless in Seattle is a good example of this.  Rather than go to the trouble of creating a plot on it’s own, or creating it’s own sense of romance, it merely drapes itself over the top of another movie — Love Affair — as a shortcut to avoid having to do it’s own hard work.  A cheap shortcut.

Another example?  The song Party In The USA by Miley Cyrus, which realizes it would otherwise be a vacuous pop hit if it didn’t attain some credibility.  Rather than create the cred itself, it gloms onto how great it is to listen to Jay-Z, hoping it can steal some of Hova’s glow.  Unfortunately, it just leaves me wondering why the hell am I listening to a Miley Cyrus song and not dropping into 99 Problems.

The reason for all this preamble in the entry of the Best Picture Project devoted to The English Patient should be pretty apparent by now — as much as I hate hi-jacking the work of others as a shortcut to credibility, I’m going to do it here.  But that’s okay, because I’ve already recognized the technique as weak, called myself out for it, and take no pleasure in doing it.  So…

When I was watching The English Patient for this series — it was the third time in my life I’ve seen it, which honestly feels twice too many — I spent almost the entire film in flashback mode, recalling a time in my life, a la Almasy in the film, where something important from my past had relevance to my present.  Only, in this case it wasn’t me crashing a plane in the desert or my secret lover dying in a cave.  No, it was the profundity of Elaine Benes.  Of Seinfeld.

Here, I’ll let her explain:

Or, if that wasn’t enough, there’s this:

 There’s no point it spending too much time on the plot for the film, because by now I think everybody get’s the basic thrust of The English Patient.  Man has an affair with another man’s wife.  Through a somewhat-convoluted series of events, when the affair is discovered, the other man winds up dead, the wife grievously injured and left in a cave while her lover goes for help.  When he does find help, he has to collaborate with the Nazis to get it.  Only, he’s too late coming back for her and the lover dies.  Later, after he’s crashed his plane and been burnt near to a crisp, he recounts his story to a nurse, who keeps him alive just long enough to get to the end.

Just as there’s no point rehashing much of the plot, there’s also no point it spending a lot of time on my feelings for the movie because, in a nutshell, I didn’t like it.  I really didn’t like it.  I really, really didn’t like it.

Kristin Scott Thomas Cannes.jpgAs Elaine Benes says, it was too long and by the end I did wish he’d shut up and die already.  And while I agree the sex scenes were overdone, I hated them for a different reason — I find Kristin Scott Thomas incredibly chilly and uninviting.  And as lush as the cinematography was — really, there were many striking images — it could not overcome the fact that the movie was so leisurely paced I couldn’t care less what happened between the man (Almasy) and the other man’s wife (Katharine).

Worse, the secondary story — that of the nurse who hears the story from Almasy before giving him the overdose of morphine — was just as dull and overwrought.  Sure, Juliette Binoche carries those scenes like her life depends on it, but unfortunately you can only do so much with what you’re given.  You can’t squeeze blood from a stone and no matter how much you might try, you can’t make The English Patient interesting.

WillemDafoeSept2011.jpgAs great as Binoche was, the real waste, for me, was Willem Dafoe.  Yes, I know everybody else got the love and the plaudits for the film — especially Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes, neither of whom were what you’d call spectacular, but were more than a little bit what you’d call annoying — but the real dramatic weight for me came from Willem Dafoe.  Perhaps he’s played too many weirdoes in his life to not have it be this way, and maybe that’s why he was cast, but when he arrived on the scene it immediately injected the film with a twisted energy as I waited for his storyline to pay off.  When it did, in a fairly understated way for a Dafoe character, I was a bit saddened, because that meant he was basically through with the film.  In fairness, his character did disappear for long stretches anyway, so it almost felt like he wasn’t even in the film to begin with.

As boring as The English Patient was — which is honestly not all that unique a trait amongst Best Picture winners — the worst sin it commits is it denied a far better, more culturally relevant, and easily the longer-lasting film from scooping up the top prize.  Of course, I refer to Fargo.

Think about that for a while: The English Patient won about a million Oscars — actually just nine — Fargo could only manage to snag two.  And neither of those two was for Best Picture.

Trivia

There are only two men who have won three Oscar’s for producing Best Picture winners: Saul Zaentz and producer of this movie, Sam Spiegel. Spiegel got there for Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and and On the Waterfront.  Zaentz got there with One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient. The English Patient was clearly the weakest of the three.

Incidentally, both men were recipients of the Irving Thalberg Award.

The only man who might have done them better would be Irving Thalberg himself. Though he never took home an Oscar, because until the 50′s the Best Picture Oscar went to the studio, not the producer, in less than 10 years he shepherded Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty to victory. Even better, Thalberg couldn’t win the Thalberg Award, because it was named after him.

Quentin Tarantino Césars 2011.jpgBTW

I draw a distinction between homage — using the themes of another movie, or rehashing a moment as a reference, a la Tarantino — and what Sleepless in Seattle and Party In The USA does.  One is a celebration, a creation, a way of saying, “I love this thing, and here’s a great little bit of it.”  The other basically says, “I love this thing, wish I could create something like it and because I can’t I’m going to try to hi-jack it into what I’m doing as a way of producing what I couldn’t achieve on my own.”

P.S.

In case you wanted to see all the Seinfeld bits about The English Patient, here they are:

For the other winners and films left to see in this little project, click here.

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