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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/9/99

The English Patient
1996 (1997) - Miramax (Buena Vista)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The English Patient DVD Film Rating: A+
Winner of the 1996 Academy Award for Best Picture, and deservedly so. The film is an expansive masterpiece, with a carefully crafted story, exceptional acting, and beautifully photographed visuals. Haunting, romantic, and mysterious, The English Patient is a rare gem, that manages the monumental task of adapting a prize-winning novel into a film of equal acclaim.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/F
This video on this DVD is non-anamorphic, but looks terrific nonetheless. The audio is even better - very natural and well mixed. The complete lack of extras is a huge disappointment however. Best Picture films should merit more attention, and this film deserved nothing less than special edition treatment.

Overall Rating: B+
This is one of the best films I've seen in recent years, and it looks and sounds fantastic on DVD. But the disc is as bare-bones as they come, and I really wish this had been an anamorphic transfer. I highly recommend the film, but given the premium price, I can't say there's much value here.

Specs and Features

162 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch in chapter 17, at 1:25:31), Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: Spanish, Close Captioned


If you haven't yet seen The English Patient, perhaps the best way for me to introduce the film, is simply with its beginning. To the sound of a woman's haunted singing, we see a canvas, as someone slowly paints the dark silhouette of a swimming figure. The image gradually dissolves into the desert as seen from the air, shadowy dunes passing slowly beneath us so that the figure seems to be gliding over them until it finally disappears. We hear the low drone of an engine, and an old bi-plane drifts into view. On board, we see the peaceful face of a woman, who seems to be sleeping. In the seat behind her, a man pilots the plane, his face hidden by a leather flying helmet and goggles. As they pass over a ridge, they are spotted by the crew of a Nazi anti-aircraft battery, which opens fire. The shells rip through the aircraft, and puncture it's fuel tank. The plane, and its occupants, are consumed by fire.

The pilot, horribly burned, is found and rescued by Bedouin tribesmen, near the wreckage of the plane. Months later, the man finds himself in Italy, under the care of Hanna (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse in the Allied army. She's been emotionally devastated by the horrors of the war and is, in this way, as wounded as her patient. As their hospital convoy drives across the countryside, she finds an abandoned monastery, and decides to stay there, to care for her patient in peace until he dies. But others soon arrive - a young Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews), who is working for the Allies as part of a bomb disposal unit, and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a haggard thief and spy with a mysterious agenda. And as these four damaged lives converge for a short time amid the chaos of World War II, the "English" patient slowly remembers his life before - a tragic story of love, adventure, intrigue and betrayal.

The English Patient first found acclaim as a best-selling (and Booker Prize-winning) novel by writer Michael Ondaajte. The book is lyrical and unsettling, steeped in richness, with locations and times that blend from page to page effortlessly. In that version, the relationship forged between Kip and Hanna is more prominent, underscored by the story of the patient's past, which weaves through the book like a thread. That director and screenwriter Anthony Mingella (whose previous work includes Truly, Madly, Deeply) even attempted the seemingly-impossible task of adapting The English Patient into a film, is impressive in and of itself. He succeeded (as even Ondaajte agrees), by choosing the more cinematic of the novel's interweaving plotlines - the desert romance between a Hungarian explorer named Almasy (played by Ralph Finnes) and a restless Englishwoman (Kristen Scott Thomas) - and making that the central focus of the film, around which all else revolves. Some have claimed that this is a gross distortion of the novel, but overlook the fact that the novel's story, as it was, is virtually unfilmable. The result of Mingella's efforts, is a film that complements Ondaajte's book nicely, as if the other half of a whole.

There's no denying that this is a film which, in present-day Hollywood, might never have been made. I can't describe what the pitch must have sounded like, without giving away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that any self-respecting studio executive would (and did) pass. The English Patient found a brief home at 20th Century Fox, who eventually dropped it when Mingella refused to cast Demi Moore in the lead romantic role. That the film was made at all (eventually by Miramax), is in large measure due to the efforts of producer Saul Zaentz, who has long been the champion of difficult, but award-winning films (Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest among others).

There is so much to like about this film. Finnes gives his best performance since Schindler's List, evoking a complex character whose cold exterior subtly betrays the emotional turmoil underneath. I had never considered Kristen Scott Thomas attractive before this film (with only Four Weddings and a Funeral to reference), but she's truly radiant here, skillfully portraying a strong-minded, independent woman, completely different from any of her previous film roles. Juliette Binoche eventually won an Oscar for her part here. The screenplay is itself a work of art, with some of the best dialogue you'll ever find in a film. It's worthy of note that the original shooting script is very different that the film's final form. Following Mingella's deft direction, The English Patient was reshaped greatly by acclaimed editor Walter Murch (who also took home a statue for his work). John Seale's cinematography is striking, with lush, vibrant color and fascinating contrasts. Even the score, by composer Gabriel Yared, is impressive, creating an evocative mood of passion and mystery.

As presented on this DVD from Buena Vista, the letterboxed widescreen picture is outstanding. The colors are deep and true right from the start, flesh tones are spot on, and there's very good contrast and shadow detail. Occasional film grain can be seen, and there is some infrequent ringing due to edge enhancement visible, but there is little in the way of digital artifacting. Unfortunately, this is not a high definition transfer, nor is it presented in anamorphic widescreen on the DVD. Given the gorgeous cinematography, I was very disappointed by this. Still the disc looks very, very good. But the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is the real treat here - it's nothing short of phenomenal, not for gimmicky surround thrills, but rather for the fact that it is the most natural and expansive sound field I've yet experienced on DVD. There's little audible separation between sound hemispheres front to back - full, seamless ambient sound is heard all around. There is terrific subtlety and richness to the sound of desert insects at night, echoes in the Cave of Swimmers, and the sound of a bustling Cairo marketplace. But when the sound must explode forcefully around the visuals, there's no compromise made. Several scenes illustrate this - try chapter 2 for the cracking-report of anti-aircraft fire, or the gale of a sandstorm in chapter 13. The sonic range exhibited here is impressive to say the least. To top it all off, at no time does the dialogue sound flat or artificial. The mix is crisp and clear.

My biggest complaint with this DVD (aside from the anamorphic issue) is the complete lack of extras to be found. Unless, of course, you consider an "if you liked this film, try…" page a worthy bonus. The English Patient is a film which practically cries out for special edition treatment, and I hope Buena Vista revisits it as such in the future. Given the extensive work done on the film in the editing room, there are numerous deleted scenes that would be fascinating to see on DVD. How about a commentary track with Mingella, Ondaajte and Zaentz? Hell, I'd even settle for a couple of theatrical trailers. All in all, the fact that Buena Vista choose to release this as a bare-bones disc is really disappointing.

Bottom line

The English Patient is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. This is not a movie that you approach lightly - there's no quick laughs, no adrenaline thrills, and no tidy ending to be found here. This is a film that you wade into a bit at a time, letting the story unravel slowly around you. You have to know what you're getting into. That said, you're not likely to be disappointed. The film is rich, multi-layered and complex enough to really sink your teeth into. And the ending is powerful and poignant, closing the film as it began, and leaving behind a lingering sense of hope. Hollywood rarely makes them like this anymore. As DVDs go, this isn't exactly a bargain, but the film is ultimately worth the price, and looks and sounds wonderful. Despite the lack of extras, I'd still definitely recommended it.

Bill Hunt
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