The Best Picture Winners: The English Patient (1996)

| January 23, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 38 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Whatever happened to The English Patient?  It is a question that I have been researching for days and haven’t come up with a solid answer.  By year’s end in 1996, it was lauded by critics and beloved by those who saw it in its theatrical run.  Then on Oscar night claimed 9 Academy Awards.  And then . . . nothing.  It receded into the dustbins of history; rarely discussed, rarely screened and hard to remember even by the most ardent Oscar pundit.

Watching the film again the other night, it is hard to understand exactly why, but looking at this particular year few would disagree that, fundamentally, the winner for the Best Picture prize should have been Fargo.  That film has become a beloved modern classic that would inspire its own darn good anthology series.  Critics fell in love with the film, as did audiences.  Heck, in 1998, it ended up the youngest film to make the list of AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies.

So, what of The English Patient?  The year’s Best Picture winner.  Why was this film so beloved and then so quickly abandoned?  I’m not 100% sure.  Watching the film again the other night didn’t give me a quick answer either.  This is the kind of a big, bold, beautiful, supremely intelligent epic romance that made David Lean famous.  Anthony Minghella, who won the Oscar for Best Director and was nominated for adapting the film from the book by Michael Ondaatje, creates one of the most intelligent and intriguing mysteries that you are likely to experience.  And he does it with the kind of narrative structure that one reads from a great book.

The structure of the film works backwards from memory, beginning with a devastating tragedy.  It is the second World War and a pilot, Count László Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), is shot down and badly burned.  He is rescued by a dedicated nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) who cares for him in an abandoned burned-out monastery where she hides out from the Nazis.  Flashbacks reveal, bit by bit, who this man is and how he got there.  And from there comes a building mystery.  Who is this man?  Is he a friend?  Is he the enemy?  What caused his accident?

What works best here is the fact that the movie avoids the old framework dodge by simply reeling back in time through his mind as The Count himself tries to put things together.  The story works by revealing layer after complex layer as we uncover the answers that lead to no easy comforts – he had an illicit love affair that led to tragedy, mostly by his won machinations.  By the end, all of the puzzles have been solved and all of the answers have been reveals and all that is left is heartache and loss.  That makes it sound depressing but this is really a fascinating story, a beautiful story, a heartbreaking story that recalls such epics as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.

So why has this film disappeared from common knowledge.  Well, I’m still not sure.  Here is a great literary adaptation that doesn’t feel like an adaptation.   It does what great books do; it keeps your attention while layer after layer comes to light.  It deals in great character detail as it allows the characters to move by the motivations of their personalities, not script manipulation.  Maybe this is just too sad a story.  Maybe it was too complex.  Maybe Fargo just feels a little more fun.  I don’t know.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.