Defend This $#!%: The English Patient (1996)
The Academy Awards recognizes the best Hollywood has to offer every year, an annual highlight of the film industry's achievements, highlighting significant cultural events worth of their place in the canon of all time great films.
Except for when they don’t.
Sometimes, films lose esteem that is related to their initial release and awards hype; other times they are outside of critical consensus, or out of step to larger cultural conversations of importance for the time they were released and the period that followed. But we here at Talk Film Society feel that some of these unpopular winners hold up to their initial acclaim, and are here to Defend This $#!%.
Looking back at the year in film in 1996, one is immediately struck by the level of popularity that emerged in various forms of genre-based titles, whether it be the Coen Brothers quirky kidnapping-gone-wrong story Fargo, Wes Craven's brilliant slasher movie pastiche Scream, Robert Rodriguez's hard-edged and profane horror From Dusk Till Dawn, or even the biggest film of the year - Roland Emmerich's patriotic sci-fi extravaganza Independence Day.
While only one of these films, Fargo, was in contention for the top prize at the Academy Awards, there has always been a feeling of discontent surrounding the winner, Anthony Minghella's The English Patient - a non-linear romantic drama set in Tunisia and Italy during the final days of World War II, that also acted as the first Best Picture win for domineering studio Miramax Films headed by mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Out of the five nominees that year, also including Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, and Scott Hicks' Shine - most people today would tell you that it was the Coens' Fargo that was robbed - being the one film that is treasured and obsessed over twenty years later (Its also spawned a fantastic television series on FX, but that's not important). The English Patient played well to the older voters of the Academy, who grew up with and idolize these types of war films with an edge of romance such as Wings, From Here to Eternity, and possibly the greatest example, Casablanca. Its vast desert landscapes also remind one of the complete and utter masterpiece that is Lawrence of Arabia, however there isn't a single prominent female role to be found in that one. Nevertheless, I'm here to defend The English Patient as a worthy Best Picture, much to the chagrin of those why may see things differently.
Based on the novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, and mainly told through flashbacks, the story captured here is that of Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a wounded and disfigured man the first time we see him, who tells his story of love and loss to Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse stationed within the Italian campaign of WWII. The younger Laszlo, a brooding, enigmatic young man engaged with mapping the Sahara desert, when he falls in love with the lovely Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a married woman he eventually has an affair with, though their time together is cut short from the outbreak of war, and the deadly circumstances which eventually tear them apart.
Fiennes is in nearly every scene of the film and its his performance which elevates it to another level. While he had made a strong impression years earlier as the despicable Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List - here Fiennes shows another side to his acting pedigree, one that the audience can't help but feel enamoured by. It's a bit of a shock that Fiennes didn't also claim the Best Actor trophy for the film given the tenacity and overall screen time of his performance - especially compared to the winner, Geoffrey Rush in Shine, who was only onscreen for less than half of that film. The film also boasts career-best work from Juliette Binoche (who won the Oscar for her performance) and Kristin Scott Thomas, as well as solid turns from Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth, and Naveen Andrews.
Utilizing a grand, epic-sized means of telling dual stories of love in the time of war, Minghella's film is determined, commanding, and affecting. While the film runs shy of 3 hours and can easily be called slow-paced and self-indulgent in terms of the amount of time it takes to arrive at its conclusion, the level of care and craft at hand cannot be denied. The English Patient cleaned up the Academy Awards telecast in 1997 - winning a total of nine trophies (Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score, Sound Mixing) out of twelve - demonstrating that the Academy was totally on board with giving the film its due from a multitude of aesthetic and technical areas.
The impact of The English Patient's win is also felt from a pop culture standpoint - many have probably seen the episode of TV's Seinfeld where Elaine goes to see the film on a date and is bored outright by the film and insists that it'll never end. I'm willing to bet more people have seen this episode than the film itself, and its a shame that this negative connotation has gone on to influence how people see The English Patient.
I think that looking back after all these years, and having revisited the film with a more appreciative gaze, The English Patient is definitely a worthy Best Picture winner, even if time hasn't been so kind to it in terms of cultural longevity. Don't get me wrong, Fargo is a great film and one I have seen countless times in my life and will continue to watch as well. It's also definitely in the canon of iconic films from the decade from its sheer quality filmmaking and quotable screenplay. And the Coens would end up getting their due over a decade later with the debatably better film No Country for Old Men. But in such years where there are two outstanding films competing for the same award, only one is going to walk away with it, and honestly, the Academy could have done far worse than the old fashioned romance with impeccable grandeur that is The English Patient.