Plot: What’s it about?
As the final, brutal days of the European conflict in World War II unfold, a nurse finds herself entranced by her latest patient. Hana (Juliette Binoche) is haunted by the death and destruction she has seen, to the point where she believes that if she connects with someone, that person is doomed to perish as a result. She is wounded by what she has experienced, but she remains faithful to her duties, even in the most dire of circumstances. An unknown man has been brought with a medical convoy, but he is too weak to be transported further. The man has horrific burns all over his body, which make his skin look like scorched leather. Although the convoy moves on, Hana stays behind and promises to tend to this burned patient. She forges a makeshift hospital and continues her tasks, soon to be joined by some new faces. A pair of bomb disposal experts soon visit, one of whom is Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh officer. Hana finds herself drawn to Kip, but is hesitant to reveal her feelings, fearful of her supposed curse. So he tends to the burned man, unaware of who he is or what his life might have been like. A more mysterious visitor is next to enter the picture, a man named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who seems to know about the burned man’s past. Will the truth ever be known about the burned man?
The English Patient was showed with critical praise and won nine Oscars, but has never been a high profile release. I am sure the Oscar wins drove in some new viewers, but nine times out of ten, people haven’t seen this movie. So is this one of those critical darlings that doesn’t play well in mixed audiences, or is The English Patient and an overlooked classic, just waiting to be embraced by mainstream viewers? In truth, I found this to be one of the best literary adaptations I have ever seen, thanks to incredible depth, a divine cast, and the courage to be faithful to the source material, even if that means going against box office rules. The casting process was tedious, as the studio wanted well known, bankable stars, while the producers had skilled performers in mind, an impasse which led to one studio dropping out of the production. But the struggle paid off, as casting choices such as Kristen Scott Thomas and Willem Dafoe, the two most contested options, proved to be brilliant and incredible. This movie is just like the novel, with more layers and depth than a single session can reveal, which means repeat performances are demanded. I found the second and third time around just as enjoyable as the first, a rare event these days. Miramax has finally given The English Patient the treatment it deserves, so this release is well recommended.
This movie won a truckload of Oscars, one of which was earned by Juliette Binoche for her excellent performance. Her role is one of pain and internal turmoil, not exactly a simple or easily executed one. But Binoche is on her game from second one and really drives home the character’s mechanisms, in one spectacular performance. This is not the usual flashy, high profile role that wins Oscars either, instead it is a calm, but tortured one. Even if she didn’t have the Miramax machine behind her, Binoche would have claimed the statue. She is able to show us the tiniest glimmer of hope in a dark, worn character, not a simple task. In fact, most performers would overplayed that hope and lost the dark edge. Or they would have been unable to show that spark, which would have made the character too dark. Binoche has all her stars lined up here however, turning in an almost perfect performance that deserves much praise. I haven’t seen much of her since this movie, but let’s hope she scores more great roles soon. Other films with Binoche include Chocolat, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Alice and Martin, and Bad Blood. The cast also includes Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, The End of the Affair), Willem Dafoe (American Psycho, Spider-Man), and Kristen Scott Thomas (Gosford Park, Mission: Impossible).
Video: How does it look?
The English Patient is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I was pleased to see a new transfer here, as the previous edition was standard letterbox, but the end result is not as great as I expected. The image is smooth and crisp, with more detail than before and a more subtle level of visual touches, quite impressive. But the visuals are softened at times, thanks to a print that has more than a fair amount of defects. You’ll see nicks, scuffs, and marks of all kinds, not to mention grain and even some video noise. So the print is the main issue here and while it does lessen the visuals, this still comes out as a solid improvement. The image is much clearer and sharper than in the previous version, that is certain. I do wish the print were in better condition, but fans should still be pleased with this new treatment.
Audio: How does it sound?
I was quite surprised, but in a good way, to see that Miramax has included Dolby Digital and DTS options here. This movie is not packed with dynamic audio, but the experience is enhanced thanks to the added attention. A lot of time is spent on dialogue, which sounds excellent and never suffers in the least. In fact, some of the more reserved scenes even have some great surround use, which adds to the experience. The more active sequences really bring the added channels to life, with a lot of effective surround use. Not overblown or overwhelming surround use, but just enough to immerse the audience a little. As is often the case, the DTS track is the superior option, but neither one disappoints.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The first disc is home to two audio commentary tracks, one with director Anthony Minghella on his own and the second with Minghella, producer Saul Zaentz, and novelist Michael Ondaatje, both well worth a listen. I loved Minghella’s solo track, as he focuses like a laser on how the film was produced and he pulls no punches. Zaentz adds a lot to the second track, if just with his stories about how different the film could have turned out. All the rest of the supplements are on the second disc, including the most substantial extra, The Making of The English Patient. This piece runs almost an hour in duration and covers a lot of ground. This is not as in depth and candid as I would like, but it is a solid effort and better than the usual promotional fluff. A collection of five featurettes captures the backstory on novelist Ondaatje, while interviews with key crew members shed some light on how the shoot was produced. This release also includes brief cast & crew interviews, a short look at the real Count Almasy, three text reviews of The English Patient, some deleted scenes, and a few other assorted featurettes.