THE ENGLISH PATIENT

Ownership, Belonging, and an Earth Without Maps

After the publication of Michael Ondaatje‘s Booker-Prize-winning English Patient, conventional wisdom soon held that the novel, while a masterpiece of fiction, was entirely untransferable to any other medium: too intricately layered seemed its narrative structure; too significant its protagonists’ inner life; too rich its symbolism. Then along came Anthony Minghella, who reportedly read it in a single sitting and was so disoriented afterwards that he didn’t even remember where he was – but who called associate producer Paul Zaentz the very next morning and talked him into bringing the novel to the screen. Two major studios and several fights over the casting of key roles later, the result were an astonishing nine Oscars (Best Picture, Director – Anthony Minghella –, Supporting Actress – Juliette Binoche –, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score and Sound), as well as scores of other awards.

The English Patient is an epic tale of love and loss; of ownership, belonging and the bars erected thereto. It unites the stories of five people: Hungarian count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), mistaken as English by a British Army medical unit in Italy after professing to have forgotten his identity; Hana (Juliette Binoche), Almásy’s Canadian nurse; Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), his erstwhile lover; Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh sapper, and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), an ex-spy and thief. All outsiders, they are struggling to come to terms with their lives: Almásy, on his deathbed, reflects back to his life as a North African explorer and his affair with Katherine; Hana believes herself cursed because everybody she cares for dies (in the movie her fiancé and her best friend; in the novel her fiancé, her father and her unborn baby), Katherine is taken to an all-male company of explorers in Cairo by her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth), Kip, like Hana, is far away from home (the only Indian in an otherwise British and Italian environment), and Caravaggio lost his livelihood after his thumbs were cut off in captivity by the Germans, on a sadistic officer (Jürgen Prochnow)’s orders.

Like the novel, the movie’s story largely unfolds in flashbacks: After Hana convinces her superiors to let her stay and nurse Almásy in an abandoned Tuscan villa, she and new arrival Caravaggio, who holds Almásy responsible for his fate, extract the details of his life in Africa and the truth about Katherine, Geoffrey and the events uniting him with the Cliftons and Caravaggio from Almásy in a series of conversations. But at the same time, the story is anchored in the present by Hana’s growing attachment to Kip, which shines a different light on the themes also driving Almásy and his relationship with Katherine. The film’s outstanding cast, which in key roles also includes Julian Wadham as Almásy’s friend Madox and Kevin Whately as Kip’s sergeant Hardy carries the story marvelously: Probably their biggest award loss (besides Fiennes’s and Scott Thomas’s Oscar and other “best lead” nominations and Minghella’s screenplay Oscar nomination) was the 1997 SAG ensemble award, which instead went to The Birdcage.

In his screenplay Minghella made several changes vis-à-vis the novel; the biggest of these doubtlessly a shift in focus from Hana, Caravaggio and Kip to Almásy and Katherine, and the fact that the film is much more explicit about Almásy’s identity than the novel. Both were wise choices: Hana’s inner demons in the novel are largely exactly that – inner demons, moreover, substantially grounded in the past and thus even more difficult to portray than Almásy’s and Katherine’s. Similarly, once the focus had moved to the latter couple, Kip’s back story would have extended the movie without significantly advancing it; and the same is true for the intersections between Caravaggio’s path and that of Hana’s father. Secondly, mistaken national identity is overall more central to Almásy’s character than identity as such; so the novel’s intricate mystery about his persona might well have proven unnecessarily distracting in the movie’s context. Indeed, once Almásy had become the story’s greatest focus, much of its symbolism virtually even required that there be no real doubt about his identity.

But in all core respects, Minghella remained faithful to Ondaatje’s novel; particularly regarding its profoundly impressionistic imagery, as shown, for example, in the curves formed by the Northern African desert’s endless sand dunes, which in John Seale’s magnificent and justly awardwinning cinematography resemble those of a woman’s body as much as they do in Ondaatje’s language, thus uniting Almasy’s two greatest loves in a single symbol.

Doubtlessly the most important image is that of maps: Guides to unknown places like those drawn by Almásy and his friends during their explorations, but also tools of ownership like the cartography of Northern Africa made possible by Geoffrey Clifton’s photos, and ultimately symbols of betrayal, as Almásy surrenders his maps to the Germans in exchange for a plane after he feels deserted by the British. And while Kip, who spends all day searching for bombs but wants to be found at night, guides Hana to himself by a series of tiny signposts in the form of oil lamps – but still never tries to expect her, in order not to get too much attached to her – Almásy, the perpetual loner who declares that he hates ownership more than anything else, gets so attached to Katherine that he claims her suprasternal notch as his exclusive property and later refers to her as his wife, which due to her marriage to Geoffrey she couldn’t truly be in life and could only symbolically become in death. – The final word on maps, belonging and ownership, however, is part of Katherine’s legacy to Almásy; and I still prefer the novel’s language here:

“I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. … All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Miramax (1996)
  • Director: Anthony Minghella
  • Executive Producers: Bob Weinstein / Harvey Weinstein / Scott Greenstein
  • Producer: Saul Zaentz
  • Associate Producer: Paul Zaentz
  • Screenplay: Anthony Minghella
  • Based on a novel by: Michael Ondaatje
  • Music: Gabriel Yared
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: John Seale
  • Editing: Walter Murch
  • Sound: Walter Murch / Mark Berger / David Parker / Christopher Newman
  • Production Design: Stuart Craig
  • Art Direction: Aurelio Crugnola
  • Set Decoration: Aurelio Crugnola & Stephenie McMillan
  • Costume Design: Ann Roth
Cast
  • Ralph Fiennes: Count Laszlo de Almásy
  • Kristin Scott Thomas: Katharine Clifton
  • Juliette Binoche: Hana
  • Willem Dafoe: David Caravaggio
  • Naveen Andrews: Kip
  • Colin Firth: Geoffrey Clifton
  • Julian Wadham: Madox
  • Kevin Whately: Sgt. Hardy
  • Jürgen Prochnow: Major Müller
  • Clive Merrison: Fenelon-Barnes
  • Hichem Rostom: Fouad

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1997)
  • Best Picture: Saul Zaentz
  • Best Director: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Cinematography: John Seale
  • Best Film Editing: Walter Murch
  • Best Art Direction – Set Decoration: Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan
  • Best Costume Design: Ann Roth
  • Best Music, Original Dramatic Score: Gabriel Yared
  • Best Sound: Walter Murch, Mark Berger, David Parker and Christopher Newman
American Film Institute:
  • Top 100 Love Stories – No. 56
Golden Globes (1997)
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Best Original Score – Motion Picture: Gabriel Yared
National Board of Review Awards (1996)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche (tied)
Directors’ Guild of America Awards (1997)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures: Anthony Minghella, Franco Ballati (unit production manager) (plaque), Lynn Kamera (unit production manager) (plaque), Steve E. Andrews (first assistant director) (plaque), Emma Schofield (second assistant director) (plaque)
Grammy Awards (1998)
  • Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television: Gabriel Yared
BAFTA Awards (1997)
  • Best Film: Saul Zaentz and Anthony Minghella
  • David Lean Award for Direction: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Screenplay – Adapted: Anthony Minghella
  • Best Cinematography: John Seale
  • Best Editing: Walter Murch
  • Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music: Gabriel Yared
British Film Institute:
  • Top 100 British Films – No. 55
European Film Awards (Felix) (1997)
  • Best Actress: Juliette Binoche
  • Best Cinematographer: John Seale
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1997)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1997)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actress: Juliette Binoche

 

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