Reflection: ‘The English Patient’ (1996)

The painting of the swimming figures in the Cave of Swimmers

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, suggests that inter-cultural romantic relationships will ultimately not last due to too many inherent, subconscious differences. Anthony Minghella’s 1996 film adaption strays away from this theme, however, and instead presents us with a narrative that straightforwardly demonstrates the devastating effects of war and politics upon the individuals involved in these institutions. In theory, this film could have gone badly: we could have ended up with just another “war-is-bad” story to throw upon the heaping pile. But what makes this film unique — what ultimately makes it one of the moist poignant films ever made — is a combination of Minghella’s thoughtfully-adapted screenplay, the lucid acting, and the sweeping cinematography. This is filmmaking at its finest.

Like Ondaatje’s novel, memory is central to Minghella’s screenplay. The film opens with the painting of the swimming figures from the Cave of Swimmers. The intriguing aspect of these cave paintings — which are real, by the way — is that they depict a time thousands of years ago when much of the Sahara was at the bottom of a massive lake. Thus, despite the fact that they are in the middle of the desert today, these paintings are truthful in that they do in fact depict people swimming. This makes them mementos of sorts, memories of a wetter, more lively time. Minghella utilizes this opposition — past happiness and vivaciousness as oppossed to present grief and sadness — as the backbone of the film’s plot structure, for we are often thrown backwards and forwards in time: back to a time of love and possibility, forward to a time of death and acceptance. Memory is also occasionally jogged by sounds in the present: take, for instance, the scene in which the burned patient hears his nurse playing hopscotch outside, and the soft slapping of her feet against the ground take him (and us) back to his previous life before the war. It sounds like a trite, haphazard technique, but it is effective, and makes for fluid transitions from the present to the past.

Ondaatje’s novel does not focus solely on the story of how the patient came to be a burned man, but it instead focuses on a group of people — all of the people, anyway, who end up at the villa: in addition to the patient, we see Hana, the nurse; Caravaggio, the thief; and Kip, the young Sikh sapper. But Minghella’s screenplay pushes Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip off into supporting roles, which is probably just as well since doing otherwise would have detracted from the film’s focus. Still, Juliette Binoche wins our affection as the traumatized nurse who believes that everyone who loves her will end up dying, and though the casting initially seems a bit odd, Willem Dafoe makes the vengeful, thumbless Caravaggio suspicious but sympathetic. Naveen Andrews, better known these days as Sayid from Lost, is not given much screen-time in the film — at least not nearly as much as Kip’s role in the novel would otherwise call for — but we are still able to see him as a compassionate if ultimately bewildered young man. Also of note is Colin Firth as the cuckolded Geoffrey Clifton: his role is small, but Firth acts so believably that we truly feel sorry for his character as the narrative’s tragic events unfold.

Above: Naveen Andrews as Kip and Juliette Binoche as Hana; Below: Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio

On center-stage in the film is Ralph Fiennes as Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine. Were this a different type of romance film, they would not have worked as the leading characters, for they do not have the right chemistry — not from what they show us here, anyway. But in this story, they are not supposed to have chemistry: Almasy is a man who has for several years been surrounded only by men in the arid wastes of the desert, while Katharine is a spunky socialite from the much moister British climate. They are not meant to go well together, and indeed in the film they do not. Almasy is cold and rigid towards Katharine, and when they finally become romantically entangled, Katharine spends a good deal of time hitting him. So what draws them together? I would argue that — just as in the novel — Almasy sees in Katharine a new land upon which to embark and map out while Katharine sees in Almasy an oasis amidst the dryness of the desert — not to mention the dryness of her dopey if well-meaning husband, Geoffrey. The love between these two is genuine, though like all doomed romances, far too passionate for its own good (cf. Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume” [II.vi.9-11]). In the hands of a lesser director and lesser actors, this relationship would be impossible to bring to the screen; but Fiennes and Thomas execute their roles brilliantly: they do not once waver in their credibility or authenticity.

Ralph Fiennes as Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine

But I have forgotten a character — one of the most important characters in both the novel and the film: the sprawling desert. As I alluded to earlier, this narrative uses the human body as a symbol for land. Notice, for example, how Almasy wants to claim Katharine’s shoulder-blade, and then later her supersternal notch. The cinematography strongly supports this analogy, for the many wide, sweeping shots of the desert — recalling not unconsciously the same types of wide, sweeping shots in Lawrence of Arabia — reveal how much like a woman’s body the endless march of sand-dunes can appear. In fact, near the beginning of the film while sketching a map, Almasy is talking with a Bedouin who describes a particular landscape as looking like a woman’s back. This body-land imagery evokes one of the film’s (and the novel’s) strongest themes: just as humans cannot own another body, nations cannot own another nation’s land. The struggle to make this a reality — that is, in this case, war — will ultimately only result in tragedy for all parties involved. Imagine, for instance, if the British and the Germans were not fighting their war in the desert (i.e., someone else’s land): perhaps Almasy would have an easier time finding the help he needs at the narrative’s tragic climax.

The wide, sweeping Sahara

Both the novel and the film seem to circle around this quote, which appears in both:

There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in new light. This is done with nervous and tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.

“Betrayal” is a strong but sadly fitting term to accompany the love story of Almasy and Katharine: first, lovers are betrayed, but ultimately, human beings are betrayed. Consider as you watch the credits of this film roll who exactly has truly betrayed Almasy. The answer might just add heretofore-unrealized dimensions to your understanding of the phrase “all’s fair in love and war.”

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