Thursday, May 29, 2014

The English Patient died...and saved my life

By Steve Evans

I have seen "The English Patient" many, many times, including a press screening in advance of its original theatrical release 18 years ago. I have many smart friends who tell me this Best Picture Oscar winner is overlong, contrived in its emotional manipulation, and deviates from the source novel (as if it is the only film ever to have done so). I respect my friends, though not always their opinions. The English Patient remains on my annual rotation of must-see motion pictures. That means I am coming up on at least my 19th viewing.

Perhaps it's the music, especially Mahler's concertos for piano, that I find so enchanting. Or maybe it's Kristen Scott Thomas and her smoldering carnality. More likely, it's the essential gentle goodness of Juliet Binoche, ripe and erotic, who won an Oscar for her performance as a compassionate nurse whose smile might very well be the cure for cancer. Maybe I relate to the blind arrogance and eventual sad regret of Ralph Fienne's Count Laszlo de Almásy, the English Patient of the title, even though this is a misnomer and he is Hungarian by birth. Or perhaps it's the performance of Colin Firth, in an early role, who plays a grieving, vengeful lover who sets the sorrowful plot in motion.

Whatever alchemy this film may weave over devotees of literate drama, I know only that I have been overwhelmed by the cinematography every time I have viewed the picture. That the blend of images, story and performance moves me to tears every time, even though the film is as familiar to me as a beloved piece of classical music. The notes progress as they must, in precise sequence, moving inexorably to a coda already known.

And still I am moved by The English Patient. It pierces deep into the recesses of my mind, into the places I share with no one. It lives there, now, in my heart. There are moments in this film when I will cry, as if on cue, and I am powerless to stop the emotion. I know this story. I know what's coming. It is the sheer brilliance of the cinematic execution in the telling of the tale that pulls me under its spell. I am powerless to resist the allure of this picture. I could no more look away or deny the power of the film than laugh off the claims of an anesthesiologist who told me to count backwards from 10 and soon I would fall unconscious.

Director Anthony Minghella's greatest film (he left this mortal plane too soon) evokes a precise time and place, and sets in motion a romantic tragedy so profound, that I will throw my cards to the table and say it is the equal of anything I have read by Sophocles, Shakespeare, or even my own impassioned (and not half-bad) gibberish to my soon-to-be ex-wife.

The English Patient is a cautionary tale of choices and consequences. We can still choose to move forward without letting our past mistakes dictate our future decisions, without letting external factors like crazed pilots guide their planes like missiles toward us, determining our fate.

Scar tissue awaits us all, whether from the heat of burning flame on the surface, or the searing heat of emotional anguish within.

The English Patient ends on an epiphany and that devastating, bittersweet smile on the face of Juliet Binoche. If my dear readers may indulge my interpretation of her smile, it is this:

So long as we may live, there is hope. There is now; this very moment, to pause and reflect and decide what next to do. And with every continued breath, there is the possibility of tomorrow, a new day perhaps a little less painful than the night we endured before.

And that's enough.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

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