English? Yes… But Not Patient Enough…

I’ve just watched one of the least enjoyable movies I have ever had the displeasure of enduring, and it’s not what you might consider a “usual suspect” for such a distinguished honour…

It was as much a surprise to me that The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas was the culprit as it would have been if I had spotted a crashed biplane on the surface of the moon.

It’s funny, because it really did take years for me to get to this movie. Every time I saw it lurking in the DVD drawer, or scheduled on the box, something in me recoiled.  But I eventually decided I would have to succumb to its call.  Anthony Minghella was, after all, from the Isle of Wight.  I have eaten his family’s overpriced ice cream and sworn at the ice cream sellers who rip you off on Southsea beach, just across the water from “his” island.  We have things in common.  So watching it would be showing solidarity with a local boy, right?

Oh!  That I had left it out of the player!

So, what exactly is wrong with The English Patient? (- Apart from being hideously burned and looking like a mummy, obviously.)  That was the question I began to ask myself when I got about an hour in and found my attention wandering despite efforts to shepherd it back.  I had the feeling I used to get when reading worthy books that were supposed to be masterpieces, yet plodded on towards the most predictable of endings.  This movie was the filmic equivalent of something by Chekhov or Hardy: ploddingly dull.

Now, there’s no doubt The English Patient is beautifully filmed, although, somehow, not beautifully enough – despite all of the soft shadows on fleshy sands, implying the curves of a woman’s body.  It has pretty people in it, although they might have been either more real or more pretty.  And the costumes look authentic, down to the German uniforms, and the leather flying jackets, the white cotton dress.  The scenes set in Khan Al Khalili look real and sumptuous; the desert looks exotic – mostly.  Everything is visually engaging in a 1970s Turkish Delight tv advert sort of a way.  So that’s not where the problem lies.

Nope, the thing that did it for me was that I actually didn’t care one tiny little bit for any of the weird characters, who wandered about the desert having their affairs.  Not one of them aroused in me the slightest feeling of sympathy, whatsoever.  From the autistically deadpan Ralph Fiennes with that strange face he has that looks like it has the texture, flexibility and expressiveness of a crusty bloomer baked in the desert sun, via Colin Firth who comes across as neither hearty nor dull, through to the cold and emotionless Kristin Scott Thomas, nearly nothing engaged my sympathy.  Experiencing a series of emotionless faces on a sandy background simply left me wondering if this is what the English really were like before the War.  If it were the case, I decided to thank the next German I met for starting something that at least collapsed a culture that was so horrendously repressed that it didn’t once know how to throw its posture off the symmetrical, or put a glimmer in its eye.  I might as well have been on Tattooine, so alien were these Sandpeople.

Which of course, left the love affair that was to determine the fates of thousands to be a completely incomprehensible nonsense.  Why did Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katherine not recognise the weirdly distant Count Laszlo as a stalker?  Why did she cheat on her perfectly serviceable husband who had it all: money, looks, kindness and an aeroplane?  There’s no explanation.  I charge the film makers with deception.  And Exhibit A, your honour, is Breadface’s pulling technique.  Ready for this?

He stares at her a bit.

Yes, that’s it.  That’s what brings the erudite, brilliant, funny but cold Katherine to the conjunctive bath tub.  One would think that with so much going on in her head, it might take more than staring at her a bit to cause her to open her legs to him.

But apparently staring at her a bit really is enough.  As is talking in a dull monotone.  And not letting anyone know what you’re thinking.  Useful tips, which I am sure I have tried to less than erotic effect.  That Katherine woman is a singular individual, that’s for sure!  If only all socially inadequate stuffed shirts could meet someone like her!  I’m sure I’ve read of people in the modern age who’ve tried that staring thing, and they either got arrested, beaten up, or had a restraining order put on them.

And here is the problem with the movie: everything that follows from him staring at her a bit seems as nonsensical as his staring at her a bit does.  For another hour, a parade of faces looking disengaged and dull goes by, and I find myself looking once again for how much more of this I will have to endure.  At the end of two hours, I start talking to the living room saying: “Please, oh movie, just surprise me.”  By now Katherine has been abandoned by Laszlo in a cave as he looks for a doctor.  But we all know they’re going to die.  And the fact that he sacrifices most of Northern Egypt to the Germans for the sake of recovering her corpse does not seem such a romantic gesture. It just seems as inexplicable as the rest of Breadface’s behaviour throughout.

True, on the other side, Juliet Binoche does save the scenes set in a monastery where she has holed up with Laszlo, and she does have a fleeting romance with a Sikh Bomb Disposal Officer, which adds a medium amount of spice to the proceedings.  They talk a bit about Imperial attitudes, and then he talks to Laszlo about how much he dislikes Kipling.  But hey, big deal. Binoche’s caring, kind face that actually displays emotions is not enough to engage the attention, because a narrative would also be useful at this point.  This very point clearly perplexed Ondaatje and Minghella, who introduced to the plot the thumbless “Moose” Caravaggio.  But all he does is go around being a bit sinister in a half-hearted kind of a way and muttering about past lives and revenge, and that is meant to produce the narrative tension the film is lacking.

Once again it’s not enough.  There is no narrative tension.  Everyone lives these internalised, introspective lives, and then they die.  Of course, it was always going to end unhappily, as we knew it would from the opening scene.  Besides, we all know how the love triangle must end in this sort of a movie.  It all seems very French, what with all that predictable misery that comes from Breadface and the Ice Queen getting it together.  I wondered whether Binoche had been included because it might fire off a few cultural buttons about the Gallic obsession with doomed love affairs.  A kind of shortcut to class.

And that’s the end of the movie.  The Breadman becomes Toastman, the Ice Queen melts away in the cave of the swimmers, the Moose ends up getting married unexpectedly, and the Frenchwoman is left to seek her Sikh in a Christian church in an Italian town.

All very picturesque, but missing the passion, missing the feeling – and missing a cast of human beings that actually walk, talk and emote like human beings…

Perhaps a biplane really did crashland on the moon.  I just wish that someone had told me before I watched it that all the characters were meant to be aliens.

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