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The English Patient

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliet Binoche, and Kristin Scott Thomas
Based on the novel by: Michael Ondaatje
Written and Directed by Anthony Minghella

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Beginning this week, all films reviewed until the end of the Oscar® race which get more than a passing notation on Cranky's nominations list will get the same rating of $7.00. Movies which seek solely to entertain will be rated as always. Let the race begin!

It is said that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. If you die slowly, says Cranky, it plays out like a mournful song.

That is an apt description of The English Patient, a tremendous and affecting set of interwoven stories that plays out across the years defined by World War II. These stories culminate in losses of love, life, and body parts, and they all have as their focal point the life of a horribly burned man whose identity, and most of his memory, is lost. His medical chart identifies him only as "the English patient," and his only certain memory is that everyone who crosses his path dies.

At the center of The English Patient is a Hungarian Count named Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), part of an archeological team working in Egypt in 1938. The team is joined by Katherine and Geoffrey Clifton. Clifton (Colin Firth) is a map-maker who shoots photographs from his biplane. Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who will find herself in a situation she never expected.

The stories of Almasy and the Cliftons flip back and forth in time, from pre-war desert excavations and celebrations of the high life in Cairo, to an abandoned monastery in 1944 Italy, where the burned and dying patient is confronted by David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), also known by the code name "Moose." Moose knows the identity of the Patient, having come to take revenge on the man. But he cannot do so until the Patient knows why, and thus stays to help the burned man recover his lost history. Moose's own story is a thin link to the others, but what you see of it will have you curled up in your seat, writhing from the horror of it all.

Finally, in the "present time" of the tale is the story of Hanna (Juliet Binoche), a nurse who chooses to stay with the Patient at the abandoned Italian monastery. There she falls sympathetically for her charge, and physically for a Sikh lieutenant named Kip (Naveen Andrews), who has the pleasant job of finding and defusing mines and bombs.

The English Patient is long, but the stories play out logically, and for all the complications, are easy to follow. Cranky tips his hat to writer/director Anthony Minghella, who never tips his hand as to where he is going, and to cinematographer John Seale, who did a magnificent job.

The only problem is that as the stories flip back and forth in time, it is easy to get emotionally detached from it all. It will help you if I point out that the accident that burned the Patient occurred in 1941, but he does not begin to recall the events of his life until 1944; three years of constant pain. He cannot die until he remembers what it was to feel alive, which is a centerpiece of all the stories you will see.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The English Patient, he would have paid...


The English Patient takes its time to play out, but it is a spectacularly photographed and edited piece, and a delight to watch. Cranky doesn't have much patience for films that pass the 150 minute mark, but I had no problem with this one.

Click to buy films by Anthony Minghella
Click to buy films starring Kristin Scott Thomas
Click to buy films starring Ralph Fiennes

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.