Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Why I Simply Cannot Stomach The English Patient


In my last blog post I raved to you about a movie that totally won my heart, Das Boot. In today's blog post, I'm going to gripe, vent, grovel about and generally rip apart a film that lost it: The English Patient.

No one would be more surprised to hear this than my high school friends, who went with me to see the movie when it opened in theaters in 1996. Back then I thought it was romantic, sexy, and tragic. I suppose the crush I had on Ralph Fiennes at the time had something to do with it...this was way before he started losing his hair and turned into Lord Voldemort.

But time and life has a way of educating one's self. While watching clips of the movie online the other night, a profound realization swept over me: this is a pretty stupid movie.
Remember the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine's boyfriend, friends, and even her boss, J. Peterman, raved about The English Patient? Elaine couldn't stomach it. Then she makes the mistake of telling her boss she hasn't seen it yet, so he insists on dragging her to the theater in the middle of the workday. She starts yelling, "Just die already! Die!" in the theater.

Well, Elaine had the right idea.

This is a movie about two cheating douchebags that get their just desserts. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now granted, it is a well made movie. No argument there. I'm talking about the exotic settings, cinematography, costume design, and all that jazz. I remember critics at the time of its release comparing it to Lawrence of Arabia on just those points alone. Kudos must go to director Anthony Minghella for getting al of that right. It did win nine Academy Awards, after all (and was nominated for 12.)

No, the problem I have with the film is its central maudlin love story between Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas.)

For starters, there's zero motive -- none whatsoever -- for Katharine to cheat on her husband. I could understand this affair somewhat if her husband, Geoffrey, was controlling, abusive to her in some way, or if they just didn't love each other any more (not that it would make the affair "right" if any of those were the case.) But Geoffrey, who seems kind, friendly, and good natured openly adores her and Katharine loves him back. She even lists him among things that she loves once she's in bed with Almásy and insists that the marriage isn't a farce. (Plus, he's portrayed by Colin Firth. Hello! Are we really to believe any woman would ditch him for a sulky, arrogant Hungarian count?)

As just noted, Almásy is sulky and arrogant. He's also jealous of her marriage with Geoffrey and comes across as spoiled and wanting to have his way. All the while looking like he stepped out of a Banana Republic store. To be honest, he needs to be punched in the mouth at several moments throughout this film.

Then there's the awful lines in this movie once the couple is under the heat of passion. I consider myself as big a romantic as anybody and I've been known to say some sexy things, but c'mon, some of these seem a little over the top...

Almásy: "I can still taste you. I try to write with your taste in my mouth."
"Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again."
"What is this?" (pointing at the hollow at the bottom of Katharine's neck.) "It's mine."

We later learn that the part of Katharine's neck that Almásy wanted to perversely possess is called the supersternal notch (well, at least we took away some anatomy terminology from this three hour film.)

I know the movie is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje. I've never read it, or any of Ondaatje's work, but if these lines were lifted from the book then it sounds like Michael Ondaatje is really a synonym for your pick of any cheesy romance novelist. Male writers in general don't write this kind of pap when describing love and sex scenes.

Did you know that Count Almásy was a real person? He died in 1951. Good thing that was before he could find out a twisted author and then a moviemaker romanticized him as a bald, disfigured burn victim that eventually dies from his injuries.


The sex scenes are over the top, too. A dress gets ripped (and then sewn by Almásy...really?)...he puts his hand up her skirt during a Christmas party and puts his thumb in her mouth.

Then there's the really cornball moment where the music suddenly swells and Fiennes bursts into tears after a badly injured Katharine tells Almásy, "I've always loved you" as he carries her to the Cave of Swimmers.



The thing is, there's nothing romantic or grand about people cheating on their partners. Anyone that thinks it's going to be sexy and somehow worth it in the end is delusional. And I felt sorry for Geoffrey as the cheating unfolded behind his back.

I'll tell you what I do like about The English Patient: the more realistic partnering of Almásy's nurse Hana and Kip, the Sikh bomb diffuser. The part where Kip gives Hana a flare and hoists her into the air so that she can view paintings in a cathedral is definitely one of the highlight moments of the film:



That, and my beloved Jürgen Prochnow shows up as a badass German major that cuts off Willem Dafoe's thumbs...ha ha ha. Too bad he didn't encounter Almásy and cut off his, too, for violating Katharine's mouth with one of them.

I know this movie is beloved by a lot of diehard romantics and has a ton of fans; mostly of the young female variety. Like I said, I love a good love story, but I cannot count myself among its legions of viewers that have actually memorized every line. I simply cannot feel sorry for either lead character by the end of the movie.

Sorry, Ralphie.

2 comments:

  1. Who was it who said to like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, you have to be English and you have to be patient?

    When I saw it on video, I remember thinking at the time that the ending was worth the wait, but it took way too long to get there. If I saw it now, I might not even wait that long. And this was the movie that beat FARGO and JERRY MAGUIRE for Best Pic.

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    1. LOL..I don't know who said that either, Rich, but they summed it up perfectly. I thought the ending was rather anti-climatic and predictable; of course Almásy was going to beg for a fatal morphine dose and croak.

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