#ThrowbackThursday – The English Patient

Original US release date: November 15, 1996
Production budget: $27,000,000
Worldwide gross: $231,976,425

As big of a movie buff as I am, I have spent 21 years dragging my heels when it comes to seeing The English Patient.  There’s a reason for that.  It’s not a good reason, though.  It’s actually a rather stupid reason.  And I can sum it up in two words: Elaine Benes.  Yep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character from “Seinfeld” has kept me from seeing a Best Picture Academy Award-winning film for over two decades.  There was an episode of the series that was appropriately entitled “The English Patient” in which Elaine is repeatedly dragged to see the movie and all she can talk about is how much she hates it.  All Elaine wants is to see the comedy Sack Lunch with her boyfriend, but it just doesn’t happen.  It’s The English Patient, over and over again for poor Elaine.  That episode stuck with me for ever since.  Even long after I knew how silly it was for me to be using the opinion of a fictional character on a sitcom to dictate my viewing habits, I resisted seeing the movie.  But, it’s time.  So, this #ThrowbackThursday is a look back at a film that I, myself, am seeing for the very first time.  Was Elaine right?

Released in late 1996, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient tells the story of a wounded soldier (Ralph Fiennes) during World War II who recounts a torrid love affair (is there any other kind?) for the viewer through a series of flashbacks.  The hook is in the wait to see exactly how the soldier was hurt and what got him to that point.  The film was not only a huge critical success – winning a whopping nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture – but also a box office winner, earning more than eight-and-a-half times its budget in worldwide receipts.  That’s extremely impressive, regardless of whether or not Elaine would have considered it metaphorically sponge-worthy.

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The film is long.  It’s very long.  There are others films of equal length.  And there are films that are longer.  But I have to say that there is certainly a pacing issue in The English Patient.  The film is a ninety-minute story told in two hours and forty-five minutes.  Not much of any true consequence happens until the final twenty minutes, or so.  The rest is all there to lay a foundation.  And, of course, any good film needs a foundation.  But there are very few noteworthy events occurring at regular intervals along the way, which is sure to be a problem for certain members of the audience.

If the dialogue had been more dynamic, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But the characters are mostly very sleepy throughout the film, talking in quiet, hushed tones and speaking through immemorable, uninspired conversation.  The rather remarkable cast somehow makes it work, though it can still be an effort to remain focused if one isn’t determined to do so.

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But, yes, the cast turns in some motivated and heartfelt performances.  All three leads – Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliette Binoche – were nominated for Academy Awards and Binoche walked away with the win in the Best Supporting Actress category.  (I referred to her as a lead, and I feel that she is.  Her screen time probably reflects that of a supporting cast member, but her presence in the film is as prominent as anyone’s.)  This was one of a massively-impressive nine Academy Awards that the film won at the 1997 ceremony including, as I previously mentioned, Best Picture.

I personally would have voted for competitor Fargo over The English Patient for Best Picture, but that’s my personal opinion.  I can understand the divide regarding the love for The English Patient.  Without question, on the technical, artistic, and performance levels, the film is exquisite and deserving of every accolade that has ever been hurled in its direction.  On a narrative level, I found it lacking.  There was significant filler that prevented the film’s story from being conveyed in an efficient manner and caused a lot of boredom – including that of Elaine – in casual audiences.  It was likely offset by the emotional resonance, the performances, and the World War II backdrop, which always adds a layer of importance to a prestige film.  Certainly, something worked because in spite of all the claimed boredom, it made a heck of a lot of money.

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I wasn’t personally crazy about The English Patient.  Had it been an hour shorter, I could have gotten much more strongly behind it.  But I can still recognize its virtues and can in no credible way claim that it isn’t a well-made film.  So, this is one for which the mileage certainly varies, depending on mood, personal tastes, and willingness to commit to the film without the guarantee of a satisfying payoff.  Maybe you loved it.  Maybe you hated it.  I fall somewhere in between.

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