Monday, November 5, 2012

Battle Of The Oscar Stars: Best Picture 1996

Pauline Kael would have hated The English Patient.

That would have meant nothing last month, but now I can't get her out of my mind.

Several weekends ago, I went to the library and carted out Kael's monstrous 1,300 page collection of film reviews and essays spanning 30 years (much of which was published in The New Yorker from the mid 60's to the early 90's). While I had read some of her work before, I had never been this absorbed in it until now.

She hated everything.

So, what did it take for her to like something? I have wondered that a lot lately, and while she may have been sassier than any other living film critic, there is definitely merit to sticking to your guns, and I admire her gusto.

Now, as I try and piece together something to say about the Best Picture Winner of 1996, all I can think is, WWPKD? Given the opportunity, Kael would have ripped it to shreads.

That is where Kael and I part ways. We agree to a degree on some movies, but where she absolutely scathed Dances With Wolves, I doted, and as I imagine her rolling her eyes at the vast deserts of Egypt and a burnt man dying in the french countryside, I can only sigh with a longing admiration.  

The English Patient is far from a movie anyone would want to watch everyday, but there is still a lot to appreciate.

Like a combination of the Oscar epics that came before, a little Out Of Africa, mixed with Lawrence of Arabia, and a pinch of Casablanca, The English Patient continues on the tradition of emotional romances set abroad during wartime.

(A perfect movie trailer. People should take notes.)

Setting the stage for success, like those that have come before it,  this film heavily relies on the storyline and chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas. So much so, that the degree of which you appreciate this movie entirely depends on how you feel about Lazlo (Fiennes) and Katherine (Thomas).

Their relationship kicks off on the verge of WWII, as Lazlo the cartographer, is on an expedition creating maps of the Sahara Desert. He finds himself attracted to Katherine, who has been dragged along on the adventure by her husband, one of the expeditions photographers (Colin Firth).

Though their affair is what the rest of the story hinges on, these sections are only slowly revealed, entirely told as flashbacks.

The non-linear story is what especially works well for adding a little pizzazz to this movie. It allows suspense to be built, where it wouldn't necessarily happen on its own.

Where Lazlo and Katherine were falling in love in Egypt before the war began, much of the rest of the film is set in France at the end of the war.

Hana (Juliette Binoche), an army nurse,  is caring for a man that was burned so badly from a plane crash, that he is unrecognizable and, based on his accent, is simply called, "The English Patient". The Army's hospital keeps getting sent to different locations, so Hana decides to care for her weakening patient alone, setting up at an abandoned library in the french countryside.

I struggled with including this, but I decided that I am confident that as the audience we understand the patient is Lazlo (sorry if that ruined the surprise for someone).  Only slowly through his memories and discussions with Hana, do we catch the glimpses of his relationship with Katherine and are able to piece together his tale.

The flashback scenes are this films legacy (Remember when the clip of the yellow plane crashing into the desert was everywhere?). It allowed director Anthony Minghella to magnificently capture the rolling emptiness of the Sahara in all its epic glory, and Fiennes and Thomas do work well to create a passionate couple, but sometimes physical chemistry isn't enough to be the most compelling, because in the end the most interesting sections of the movie turn out to instead be between Hana and Lazlo.

Really, it's an unfair advantage. As much as Fiennes and Firth are delightful, when Binoche, William Defoe, and Sayid from Lost are teamed together, it's hard not to cherish the scenes they are in more than any others.

Binoche alone is always a terrific standout in anything she is in, and her character Hana is especially memorable and tragic in how she embodies all of the loss that comes with war. Hana caring for Lazlo and hearing about his past simply feel like the most important and dramatic scenes, especially in how they bring the story full circle; Lazlo and Katherine start off what they think is a harmless relationship, but their actions affect others and end up resulting with major consequences.

Even with all that greatness, the film is still widely regarded as one of the most boring films of all time.  High-school Justine would have agreed, but while watching it for the second time I had a change of heart.

The master of beautiful looking films (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley), Minghella created something most visually appealing for Oscar voters and audiences in 1996. Even when the film was running long, between the bomb explosions, the sun setting over the french countryside, and the camp fires in the desert, all I could think was, "I wish I had been old enough to check this out in the theater."

While the film is not perfect, The English Patient is also far from boring, and even though Pauline Kael would have found it to be emotional tripe, she isn't right about everything. Besides the stunning visual appeal, there is much more intrigue and characters to appreciate than simply any typical romance.

Love any of the epic, tragic romances that won big at the Oscars before 1996? Then definitely check out The English Patient.

Next Up: From one tragic romance to another and the film of my generation; all of our hearts will always go on for Titanic.

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