Volume 1, Number 5 -- December, 1996

Selling "The English Patient"


The Perils Of Big Budget Literary Adaptations

Chris Chen

Director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply), hired by the producer who brought us tasteful adaptations of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, acknowledged early on that one of the principal difficulties in streamlining Michael Ondaatje's dense, poetic 1992 Booker Prize winning novel for the screen was dramatic tension. That, and the word "plangent" had to be removed from initial drafts of the script in order to more effectively pitch the project to studio heads. The peculiar difficulty Minghella has to solve, besides keeping an audience guessing about the fate of the film's characters, is how to keep The English Patient from becoming what Ondaatje's critics argued the novel was at its worst, an ephemeral and brainy version of another North African desert romance, Casablanca. He also must have felt some pressure to keep his film from the recent excesses of Berolucci's beautifully shot but ultimately boring and scattered adaptation of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky.

A sapper, a thief, a nurse, and the nameless burn victim she attends to, cross paths in an abandoned villa in Tuscany at the end of the Second World War. They are united in their common desire to recover from the crushing trauma they have experienced as a result of the violence of the times, and in this way the film requires its actors to give audiences some sense of the cruelty of the war through the long night of their recovery. Along the way there are shifting loyalties, bombs to be defused, murderers to be exposed, and gardens to be tended.

Unlike the film, though the novel employs many distinctly cinematic set pieces, Ondaatje's work didn't need to keep an audience in the dark about the future of his characters to convey its tragic intensity. Early on in the book, readers already know how Almasy's affair with Katherine Clifton will end, that the Sikh sapper Kirpal Singh will inevitably leave Hana and return to India, that Hana herself will ultimately return to the company of her pacifist aunt Clara in Canada. Indeed, Ondaatje's humanism requires his readers' cool foreknowledge of disaster to tell his tale against, stressing the difficulty of pigeonholing them in any kind of broad "historical" summary of their lives. Almasy, burned beyond recognition, can only remember piecemeal the sequence of events leading up to his disfigurement. His body has become a hieroglyph. He is a man wounded and weakened beyond the possibility of linear narrative.

We should credit Minghella for remaining relatively faithful to the novel, retaining its meandering, associative structure and even preserving long descriptive passages as dialogue without recourse to voice-overs. However, Minghella has diluted the film immeasurably by deciding to cut back on Hana and Kip's stories, instead concentrating on the seemingly more "dramatic" romance between the Hungarian Count and Katherine. The result is a thirty-four million dollar Hollywood film that charts the familiar territory of adultery and betrayal. Ralph Fiennes does a fine job of fleshing out Almasy's growing romantic obsessions but never seems to convince the audience of his other great solitary passion for desert exploration, other than affecting a kind of clipped awkwardness in the company of his fellows. His later defection to the Germans should be nothing to him, an act of contempt for both sides of the war and for every nation, but we only have a dim sense of why he feels the spirit of the desert has been violated. There is a later scene where, drunk, he berates the members of the International Sand Club, his gang of fellow explorers, while at the same time lamenting its dissolution. But this is too little, too late. Where Almasy should touched by evil, Fiennes is surly. He also seems to lose the pulse of his character after he has been maimed by German fire. All the scenes involving his recuperation in the villa are overlong and under-acted.

Hana, whose role in the film has been drastically reduced to being a innocent spectator to the growing intrigue between her patient and the morphine addicted thief Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe once again playing Willem Dafoe), who knows more about Almasy's past than Almasy can bear. Juliette Binoche plays her as a creature entirely devoid of self-possession, a bundle of contradictory, unpredictable emotions. Her characterization of Hana is perhaps where the differences between film and novel are starkest. Binoche's performance is vacuous and doggedly cheerful, a far cry from the nurse in the novel who offers to try and wean Caravaggio from his addiction, who lends a sober ear to most of Almasy's painful confessions. The consolation provided by administering to her Christ-like patient and her brief, haphazard relationship to Kip (a quiet Naveen Andrews playing most of his scenes as a sort of comic relief) are never fully explored, but we cannot fault either of these actors for what ultimately Minghella believed would reach the widest audience, an obsessive love affair gone awry.

It is Kristen Scott Thomas who emerges as the film's greatest asset, giving an intricate, understated performance as a fierce woman who is simultaneously infuriated and drawn toward an obtuse, anti-social man whose primary enthusiasm is a corner of the world he believes will never be owned, named, or claimed by any country. The later sections in the film devoted to Katherine's death in the cave of swimmers are both strongly acted and poignantly imagined. The love scenes between her and Fiennes are edgy and surprising (at their initial meeting she, as if embarrassed by the vulgarity of her reciprocated passion, slaps him while he kneels, grovels and buries his nose in her torn white dress). "New lovers are nervous and tender, but they smash everything...The heart is an organ of fire," Almasy writes in frenzy, trying to contain his own explosive feelings for her. It is also surprising that within the scope of this very marketable situation, Minghella has decided to offer dialogues from the novel almost entirely uncut. The result is one of the wordiest romances I've seen on film in ages, and also one of the most strangely unsatisfying ones. The audience is always waiting for proof of the wonderful, pointed exchanges that swirl around these furtive lovers. We also wait for the moment that Kip and Hana's wordless romance will register as anything more than a series of elaborate dates.

Minghella's camera is always trained squarely on his characters, which is perhaps the film's greatest liability; we can feel him trying to convince a skeptical audience that Ondaatje's novel is really just about people after all, trapped in dangerous and romantic situations that even the least literary among us could relate to. What's lost is the novel's heavy reliance on landscape to set the pitch of its characters (images that seem peculiarly suited to cinema that frustratingly never materialize), its framing of the story within the destroyed architecture of the Italian villa, which Minghella only indicates to us peripherally, its use of the vast backdrop of war and the desert to temper any cramped psychologies the director invents to explain his unruly characters (in one of the most predictably banal setups early in the film Hana is traumatized by the death of a fellow nurse - there is a gratuitous interlude later where we're shown the reason for Caravaggio's vengefulness, his torture at the hands of a sadistic German commander played flatly by another weather-beaten character actor, Jurgen Prochnow). Ondaatje constantly strives to reveal the effect of environment, landscapes of catastrophic and epic beauty, on the minds of his characters. They are all given some measure of infinity, which necessarily blunts the artifice of such simplistic psychological models of cause and effect. It is also the hook that Minghella should have exploited to draw unbelievers to his project, something that made the novel's characters fundamentally unpredictable and human. When Kip shows Hana the religious paintings in a sandbagged chapel, the camera, tellingly, spends more time on Binoche's awed face than it actually does in showing us what she sees.

Minghella, to his credit, should be lauded for his attempt though it is at times a cluttered and claustrophobic enterprise. The English Patient is full of inspired poetic flourishes and strong supporting performances (a drunken Geoffrey Clifton cutting paper hearts out of an anniversary gift meant for his wife, a sequence involving flaming snail shells that works better on film than on paper, a Sikh love interest that is never condescended to or explained away, a wonderful bit part for Almasy's friend Madox, Almasy's seared face bearing more than a passing resemblance to a map, the transcendent opening and closing scenes of Katherine and the grief stricken Count flying a biplane silently over flesh colored dunes).

Minghella must have known that the source material for this film was so strong all he had to do was try and preserve a modicum of its spirit to score a hit, and this he does for the most part. "The English Patient," for all its faults and for all the grumbling of the novel's legion of admirers, is easily the best drama of the year. Occasionally I glimpsed what kind of film it could have been however, and this irked me. When Almasy and Katherine are marooned in a truck by a sandstorm, he tries to describe to her the different kinds of winds and storms recorded in pages of Herodotus. The camera lingers on the queer, striking image of Katherine's fingers playing over a window while the ghostly bluish-gray winds level and mold the earth around them. We get a sense that the eerily beautiful weather howling beyond the glass is history, and in that moment we are shown more about the characters than in all of the other forms of psychological explanation Minghella has devised to bring this brilliant work to screen.

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