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The English Patient

Part Three of the 79 part series examining every Oscar Winner for Best Picture ever takes us all the way back to the year 1996 and The English Patient. The movie follows the birth and death of two relationships set against the start and end of World War II.

Ralph Fiennes plays Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy, a pilot shot down over north Africa and burned beyond recognition shortly after the war began. When we catch up with him four years later he is at an Allied hospital in Italy and claims to not remember a thing. When the army attempts to move the hospital, his nurse, played by Juliette Binoche desides he is not well enough to travel and they hole up in an Italian villa, eventually joined by a Canadian spy, a Sikh munitions expert and his English colleague.

Through flashbacks we see Almasy mapping North Africa with the Royal Geographical Society before the war. It is here that we see the relationship that takes center stage, as Almasy becomes involved with Katherine, the wife of another pilot. They bond while seeking shelter in a broken down car during a sandstorm and the relationship soon turns physical.

The Almasy-Katherine relationship, though intended to be the main focus of the movie, is in my opinion overshadowed by the relationship in the 1944-45 scenes between Kip and Hana. This is not because of any disparity in acting skill, as Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas can certainly hold their own with Binoche and Naveen Andrews, but simply because the munitions expert and the nurse are more sympathetic characters. Hana is emotionally reeling having just learned of her boyfriend's death and having to witness her best friend's death soon after. Kip is the right guy who comes along at the right moment to help her heal and begin to move on. In the pre-war scenes meanwhile, Katherine is turning her back on a husband that treats her well and honestly deserves better. She certainly doesn't deserve the bizarre murder-suicide attempt at the hands of her husband, but her resulting death never really hits me emotionally, and that is a very bad thing if you're talking about the female lead.

Oddly enough her death doesn't seem to affect Almasy either, compared to how Hana reacts to the death of her fellow nurse or the way Kip reacts to the death of Hardy. Granted, Almasy had several days walking through the desert to reflect on the likelihood that she wouldn't make it, but it seems the characters at the end of the war would have seen far too much death and would not be as fazed as a man who had lost the woman he loved when he was powerless to save her.

Then there's Caravaggio. The Canadian spy played by Willem Dafoe arrives at the villa intent on killing Almasy in retribution, not for the affair with Katherine, but a rather minor point of treason that the movie does not dwell on at any great length. Caravaggio confronts Almasy which either sparks the Count's memory, or convinces him to ditch the amnesia act, depending on how you read it. The trouble is, the entire character seems tacked on, as it is not necesarilly clear that Almasy would remember Caravaggio anyway, and he certainly had no way of knowing his actions would result in Caravaggio's capture by the Germans.

In all, The English Patient is a good, but flawed movie that is beautifully shot and has some very good acting. But was it really the best movie of 1996? Oscar night that year was a celebration of indy film, as four of the five best picture nominees (The English Patient, Fargo, Shine, and Secrets and Lies) were made outside the studio system. Only Jerry Maguire was made by a studio, and its $50 million budget was more than the other nominees combined. The English Patient is the kind of doomed romance with a British accent in a remote locale that would have won in a heartbeat in the 1980's. Secrets and Lies is the kind of movie that is compelling, but not all that memorable. Shine is somewhat inspiring but also not particularly memorable. Jerry Maquire has some good lines but it was an honor just to be nominated. Fargo however is different. The Coen brothers produced a movie that was hilarious, tense, and extremely well written. That definately should have won. Or the academy could have really honored independent film makers by giving some credit to Swingers, a funny, sweet, and well shot movie made for $200,000, which was exactly one-one thousanth the budget of 1997's best picture Titanic.

Don't get me wrong, The English Patient was quite a good movie, but in my opinion not as good as the efforts that year from the Coens or Jon Favreau.


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