Our Rating: 2 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
One of the most acclaimed motion pictures of all time and with an outstanding cast including Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristen Scott Thomas, William Dafoe and Colin Firth, The English Patient is a captivating but unfulfilling tale of adultery. This award-winning production (which took home Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director) is set in two separate times... the past and present, entwining the two through captivating transitions. On a superficial level it's a good film. Wonderful acting, a haunting storyline, and picturesque locations with a sober conclusion. But from a Christian's perspective there's very little to recommend... the film is rampant with adultery, sexual content and implications, nudity and occasionally foul language. Its two and a half hour running time seems even longer because of the slow-moving plot.
An airplane flies across the sand plains of northern Africa with two passengers, the pilot in the back and a woman in the front, her white scarf fluttering in the wind. Ground forces fire on the unidentified aircraft and she plunges to the ground, erupting into a fireball. The pilot is dragged from the wreckage badly burned and in need of hospital attention. He's brought into the care of Hana (Juliette Binoche), a nurse working along the front lines as they pull out of the country. The world is engaged in war with Germany, as the empire attempts to take over the world. The hospitals must constantly be moved and transporting patients like the scarred, badly burned "English Patient" becomes painful. Hana has seen much of war and fears she is jinxed, for everyone she loves comes to a violent and unexpected death. Her fiance, a military captain, was blown to bits in the last engagement, and one of her closest friends accidentally detonates a land mine.
Wanting her mysterious patient to have a peaceful final journey toward death, Hana persuades the army to let her stay in an abandoned monastery and care for him. She'll catch up with them once the patient has died. He's an unusual man unable to remember his own name, much less where he came from or what happened to cause the accident. But as Hana reaches out to him through her own pain, the English Patient begins to remember. His name was Count Laszlo de Almsy (Ralph Fiennes) and he was part of an archeological group working in the African content. During one of their expeditions they were joined by the group's most successful fundraisers, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katherine (Kristen Scott Thomas). The only man in the group not to have a woman waiting for him at home, Almsy took offense at Katherine's presence in camp, believing the desert was no place for a woman.
Geoffrey is dispatched on political business abroad and Katherine agrees to remain behind. A freak accident and a blinding sandstorm bring her and Almsy together as friends. Their compatibility soon grows into something more, leading to an impassioned affair beneath her husband's innocent, unassuming nose. But obsession can lead to disaster, tearing them emotionally apart and accumulating in a devastating choice which will forever effect the people around them. While Almsy recalls the past, the monastery has become the refuge of others. One of them is a professional thief hired by the war department (William Dafoe), who believes he knows the identity of the "English Patient"... and has a score to settle with him. The other is a member of the local bomb squad who begins to fall in love with Hana. The story moves rather slowly and isn't overly complex, but has many memorable elements. Essentially what it boils down to is lust and the resulting repercussions.
The most curious aspect of The English Patient is its inability to explain motivations. Katherine seems a happily married wife but is drawn to Almsy. He starts out apparently hating women, avoiding her company, and trying to get her removed from the camp; but we're never told why. Maybe he's trying to avoid his own temptation but finally gives in. But he could also be a seducer by nature. During one memorable scene between the lovers, Katherine is dancing with him and remarks on his following her back to the hotel. "Escort me by all means," she says lightly, "but never follow. It seems predatory somehow." His lack of response, as well as the intensity in his eyes, make both Katherine and the audience wonder if "predatory" is not a good description. The involvement of the thief is also slightly sketchy; you'll have to be keen to catch on to his motivations.
The primary problem with The English Patient is its explicit sex scenes. In truth there is only one, but others are implied. Katherine beats on Almsy as he tries to embrace her, but then gives in. The two kiss passionately, he rips open her shirt, and they fall out of camera range. There's one clothed but graphic sex scene in a closet. The most disappointing aspect is the partial and full female nudity. (Katherine getting in and out of a tub, laying uncovered in bed beside Almsy, etc.) It's implied Hana and Kip sleep together. There are also four f-words (three of them said in a single scene), and several abuses of Jesus' name as a man is having his thumb graphically sliced off. (We see the knife blade come down and sever the limb with gruesome results.) There's some mild domestic violence (a woman playfully punches a man several times before they embrace); an airplane crashes, and a bomb goes off. A woman is seen slightly bloodied up, apparently after being "interrogated" by Germans. Almsy is scarred beyond the point of recognition. There's a mercy killing by lethal injection.
What concerns me is the actor's ability to make the audience empathize with Almsy and Katherine. Adultery is never right in any circumstance and movies that glorify it are only a determent to morality. But we like these people despite their wrong choices. Even if we don't understand them, we're still touched by their torrid relationship. One of the final scenes in the painted caves is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, where Almsy swears he'll come back and fetch her. There is no happy ending but occasional glimpses of light. The film has some truly beautiful sequences and light humor but is completely ruined by nudity and sexual content. If you must see it, see it edited.