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review added: 6/18/04



The English Patient
Collector's Series - 1996 (2004) - Miramax (Buena Vista)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

The English Patient: Collector's Series

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B-/B+

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
162 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), dual-disc keepcase packaging, audio commentary (with director Anthony Minghella), audio commentary (with Minghella, novelist Michael Ondaatje and producer Saul Zaentz), chapter selection insert, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (31 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1), subtitles: English (for the hearing impaired), French and Spanish, Close Captioned

Disc Two - Supplemental Material
All features 4x3, About Michael Ondaatje (5 interview clips - 23 mins total), From Novel to Screenplay - Interviews with the Cast and Crew featurette (7 mins), The Formidable Saul Zaentz - Producer featurette (2 mins), A Historical Look at the Real Count Almasy featurette (8 mins), A Conversation with Screenwriter and Director Anthony Minghella (7 interview clips - 32 mins total), A Conversation with Producer Saul Zaentz (9 interview clips - 20 mins total), A Conversation with Writer Michael Ondaatje (4 interview clips - 7 mins total), A Conversation with Editor Walter Murch (7 interview clips - 27 mins total), The Work of Stuart Craig - Production Designer featurette (4 mins), The Eyes of Phil Bray - Still Photographer featurette (3 mins), Master Class with Anthony Minghella - Deleted Scenes featurette (20 mins), Black and White to Colour: The Making of The English Patient CBC documentary (53 mins), 3 film reviews (text by Roger Ebert, Peter Travers and David Thomson), preview trailers (for Miramax 25th Anniversary, Cold Mountain, The Human Stain, People I Know, The Barbarian Invasions and My Voyage to Italy), animated film-themed menu screens with music, languages: English (all features DD 2.0), subtitles: none


If I had to pick a favorite film of the last decade - one that I just absolutely connected with and love in every respect - The English Patient would probably be my choice. That's not something I say lightly, believe me.

If you haven't yet seen this film, perhaps the best way for me to introduce it, is simply to describe 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're spotted by the crew of a Nazi anti-aircraft battery, which opens fire. The shells rip through the aircraft and puncture its 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 Tuscany 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. 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 Ondaatje. The book is lyrical and unsettling, steeped in richness, with locations and times that blend effortlessly from page to page. 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 Minghella (whose other work includes Truly, Madly, Deeply, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain) even attempted the seemingly-impossible task of adapting The English Patient into a film is impressive in and of itself. He succeeded (as even Ondaatje agrees), by choosing the more cinematic of the novel's interweaving plotlines - the desert romance between a Hungarian explorer named Almasy (played by Ralph Fiennes) 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 Minghella's efforts is a film that complements Ondaatje'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 on the project. The English Patient found a brief home at 20th Century Fox, but the studio eventually dropped it when Minghella 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. Fiennes 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 particularly 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 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 Minghella's deft direction, The English Patient was reshaped greatly by acclaimed editor Walter Murch (who also took home a statue for his work here). 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.

The original DVD from Miramax was among the studio's first releases on the format. As such, while the transfer was decent, it was non-anamorphic widescreen only. While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was very good for the time (and still holds up well today), the disc had nothing at all in the way of extra features. Given that the film had just won some nine Academy Awards, fans (myself included) were left quite disappointed by the release. Thankfully, the long wait for the studio to give The English Patient an upgrade on DVD is over.

The video on Disc One of this two disc set is presented in full anamorphic widescreen at the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The new transfer is by and large good, reproducing the theatrical experience fairly well. The contrast is terrific, with deep, dark blacks and a wide range of gradation. The color palette is lush and vibrant, presenting the film's simmering desert cinematography wonderfully, while rendering the darker, more subdued tones of the Italian monastery accurately as well. You will notice the occasional nick on the emulsion, or the random bit of dust, but it's nothing to speak of. Unfortunately, the image seems lacking in detail occasionally, and there's a "digital" quality to its appearance. You'll also notice some edge enhancement visible. There's light to moderate grain apparent throughout the film, but that's true to the original theatrical presentation. All in all, while this isn't the reference quality transfer it should be, it's still a massive improvement from the original DVD.

This DVD sounds great as well, presenting the film's audio in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 options. The Dolby Digital mix is nothing short of phenomenal, not for gimmicky surround thrills, but rather for the fact that it's a wonderfully natural and expansive sound field. There's little audible separation between sound hemispheres front to back - full 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 1 for the cracking-report of anti-aircraft fire, or listen to the gale of a sandstorm in chapter 12. 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 DTS mix improves on the Dolby version only very slightly, but the difference is noticeable if you compare them closely. The DTS offers exactly the benefits you'd expect - a slightly smoother sound field, with more seamless panning and a richer, more natural quality to the ambience. Whichever mix you choose, you'll be very pleased.

Disc One offers a couple of interesting extras right off the bat, in the form of a pair of audio commentary tracks. The first features Minghella, Ondaatje and Zaentz together. Some of you might recognize it - it was originally recorded for the 1997 Criterion laserdisc release. The second commentary is new (recorded during the post production of Cold Mountain to be specific) and features Minghella by himself. Both tracks are excellent listens, particularly if you're a fan of the film. In the first, Minghella offers tons of interesting thoughts and comments on virtually every subject related to the film you could imagine, with Ondaatje and Zaentz adding salient points here and there. The second track obviously has a more retrospective nature. Minghella even goes so far as to say that this is the first time he's seen the film in years, so it's almost a stranger to him. Still, that doesn't prevent him from making many more interesting observations, most of them (but not all) different than those in the first commentary.

The brunt of the extras are found on Disc Two, and consist largely of video interview clips and featurettes (all in full frame). Unfortunately, this disc (unlike the first) defaults to a series of forced preview trailers when you first spin it up. You can skip them with the 'menu' button on your remote, but it's still irritating.

I'm not going to go into too much detail on the extras, because I'd rather you enjoy discovering them yourselves, but I will run them down for you. There's a five-part interview with Ondaatje, conducted at the time of the film's release. From Novel to Screenplay is a 7-minute featurette on the adaptation process, featuring interviews with the cast and crew. There's a brief featurette on Saul Zaentz' contributions to the filmmaking process, and a short historical look at the real Count Almasy. There are a series of four new interviews - with Minghella, Zaentz, Ondaatje and Walter Murch respectively - that are divided into sections. There are short featurette looks at the work of production designer Stuart Craig and still photographer Phil Bray. There are also a trio of text reviews of the film by critics Roger Ebert, Peter Travers and David Thomson.

The two remaining items represent the best of the lot. The first is the 20-minute Master Class featurette from the Criterion laserdisc, in which Minghella discusses a number of deleted scenes and gives you a look at them. Finally, you get a great documentary, the 53-minute Black and White to Colour: The Making of The English Patient, which appeared on the CBC in Canada to promote the film's release. It's an in-depth look at the production, featuring lots of location footage, interview clips and more. Most interesting to me was the fact that the documentary offers brief glimpses of additional deleted and unused footage from the film, including more of the opening scene. You see the plane on fire and going down, you see the occupants parachuting to the ground on fire, etc. It's fascinating stuff. There's only one strange issue with the documentary, which is that the narrator's audio is overly soft compared to the rest of the sound, giving her voice an oddly removed quality. It's a little distracting, but not irritatingly so.

As good as all these extras are, there are a few things that are NOT included, which for me would have made this DVD a home run. First, there exists an excellent episode of Bravo's Page to Screen on the making of the film, replete with cast and crew interviews, which is significantly more interesting than most of the material on Disc Two (click here for more on this). I would love to have it on disc, but it's not here and it's not available elsewhere either. Also, while you get a look at some deleted scenes in Minghella's Master Class (and a little more in the documentary), it would have been great to have these scenes and moments included separately. According to Minghella, the film was over four and a half hours long in its first cut - there has to be tons of extended and deleted footage that's not included here. I would also have loved to see the original (and much different) shooting draft of the screenplay included, perhaps via DVD-ROM. The audio commentaries would have benefitted from participation by some of the major cast members. Then there are the extras from the Criterion laserdisc that didn't cross to this DVD, specifically the 24-minute documentary The English Patient: A Passionate Journey (although many of the featurettes on this DVD are excerpted from it), the video of Ondaatje and Minghella reading from the book and script, and the film's various theatrical trailers and TV spots. Yeah, I know... including all of this would likely have made it a three-disc set. As a fan of this film though, I was really hoping this would be the ultimate special edition treatment... and it isn't. It is very, very good, but I won't be getting rid of my laserdisc anytime soon.

In any case, The English Patient is an undeniably 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 appreciate what you're getting into with this film, and have the patience to experience it fully. That said, you're not likely to be disappointed. The English Patient 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, though it's not perfect, this is certainly a terrific improvement over the original, movie-only release. It's a thoughtful exploration of a truly great film... and is definitely not to be missed.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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