I can recall not being overly taken with the lengthy adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's equally sprawling novel when I first viewed it. However since it managed to capture nine Academy Awards out of its twelve nominations, making it one of the most successful movies in Oscar history, I decided to take a fresh look to discover what made it so award-worthy.
It might be useful to first examine the three categories where it did not win, namely best actor for Ralph Fiennes, best actress for Kristin Scott Thomas, and somewhat surprisingly best adapted screenplay. I have not read the original novel which I gather had been considered unfilmable, since it is apparently a collection of random thoughts and impressions. From this the film's director Anthony Minghella managed to script a coherent scenario of doomed, forbidden love between Fiennes' Hungarian Count Almasy and Scott Thomas' adulterous wife of poor old Colin Firth. Almasy was a real person who was indeed part of the loose group of colleagues exploring the desert in the 1930s, but since he survived World War II, dying in Austria in 1951 and was quite probably homosexual, the film's story is at best a piece of highly romanticized fiction -- not that it is any the less interesting for that. It was Fiennes' second Oscar nomination and there is no denying that his part is well-acted, especially as he lies horribly burnt and dying under Canadian nurse Juliette Binoche's tender care; however the award that year went to Geoffrey Rush for his much showier role as the mad yet talented pianist in "Shine". Scott Thomas lost to Frances McDormand in "Fargo" and I would not dispute the fact that she quite probably did not deserve to win for what was largely a mechanical and somewhat wooden portrayal.
The one acting Oscar went to Binoche for best female support, although I would argue that her role was as important, if not more so, than Scott Thomas'. This win was a colossal upset since the odds-on-favourite was Lauren Bacall for her first-ever nomination for "The Mirror has Two Faces"; everyone and especially the likeable Bacall expected a shoo-in as being 'her turn' (and I can still picture her teeth-gritting losing face), but there is little doubt in my mind that Binoche's dynamic turn was a worthy winner.
Of course the film won best picture and best director for Minghella, easily beating "Fargo", "Jerry Maguire", "Secrets and Lies", and "Shine". Considering these films in retrospect, I could picture "Fargo" -- a wonderfully entertaining flick from the Coen Brothers -- being the victor, but the overall impressive production values of "The English Patient" do on balance outshine the loser's. No doubt this is why the film also won for art direction, cinematography, editing, sound, and original dramatic score. The movie is brilliantly filmed, capturing the expanse and mysteries of the Sahara, with a majestic score to match. "Fargo" may well be the more enjoyable watch, but this film captures the epic scale required for romanticized storytelling, and one can admire the skill that went into its production without necessarily 'loving' the movie.
Oddly enough one category where the film was not nominated was best make-up and one might have expected some recognition for the face-distorting make-up that Fiennes must have suffered during large stretches of the scenario. It must have been good preparation for his hideous physiog as Lord Voldemort (although no doubt that was all CGI!)
By and large I am glad that I decided to watch this film again, although some of the smaller pleasures come from its supporting cast, particularly from Naveen Andrews as a Sikh bomb-disposal expert (and Binoche's unlikely lover) and a shifty-looking Willem Dafoe as a crook seeking revenge on Almasy's possible traitor. The screenplay is well constructed constantly moving between its now and then scenes, drawing the viewer into the motivations for the not-at-all-English patient's supposed memory loss, creating sympathy for him where possibly little is due.
A word to the wise: Entries will be rather sporadic over the next few weeks as I am going away for my birthday this long weekend and I don't think I'll be watching many movies in St. Petersburg -- not the one in Florida! When I return, I then have twelve sets of tickets for the London Film Festival beginning next Thursday. I promise to cover all of the fest's undoubted delights, but will need to do so when I am able to grab a few spare hours. Watch this space...