Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristen Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth
Rated R for Sexuality, Some Violence and Language
Call me a romantic. Call me a lover for nostalgia. Call me whatever you like, but movies that look back through rose-colored glasses, especially if they're romances, strike a chord within me. I love those huge, sprawling epics that make the heart soar. By all accounts, I should have loved "The English Patient." The performances are strong, the film looks fantastic, and the story is the kind of romantic saga that could only be told against the backdrop of war. So why am I not recommending it?
The lack of chemistry between the leads is a good place to start. Although both Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas are excellent actors, they generate no heat together. I didn't care about their romance at all, mainly because they spend so much time avoiding saying what they should say. Their characters are so repressed it's hard to imagine them feeling anything for anyone. Whatever romantic feelings they have are underplayed. In a more intimate movie, that can work, but in an epic like this, it's a fatal mistake. There are also too many things going on, too many characters. Even a filmmaker with Anthony Minghella's skill can't keep it all straight, much less give it an emotional punch.
It is the tail end of WWII. A nurse named Hana (Binoche) is caring for a gravely injured man (Fiennes). He doesn't remember his name, but he carries with him a copy of Herodotus's histories, and slowly but surely his memories begin to return. Recognizing that the man has little time left and moving him all across Italy with the rest of the convoy brings him considerable pain, Hana elects to allow him to live out the last of his days in a remote monastery. They are soon joined by a professional thief named Caravaggio (Dafoe), who knows the man all too well, and a bomb disposal expert named Kip (Andrews). Through his interactions with Hana and Caravaggio, the man, whose name is Almasy, begins to relate the story of his tragic love, Katherine Clifton (Thomas).
Ralph Fiennes is one of those British actors who can, and will, do just about anything. It must have taken him an extraordinary amount of courage to play the psychopathic Nazi guard Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List." While Fiennes was accorded his second Oscar nomination for his work here, it's not anywhere near his best work. To be sure, he's solid, but not standout. His co-star, Kristen Scott Thomas, rarely gets lead roles in big budget movies, and like Fiennes, she's good, but is better elsewhere. The best performance is given by French legend Juliette Binoche. She's a delight as the empathetic Hana, stealing her scenes away from her higher-profile co-stars. I think the film would have been better served if it had concentrated more on her. Willem Dafoe shows up in what has to be the least twisted role of his career. Naveen Andrews and Colin Firth are good in supporting roles as well.
The late Anthony Minghella was known for making movies that were strong on a psychological and emotional level. His next film after this one, the far superior "The Talented Mr. Ripley," is a fine example. But here, he's juggling too many hats, and while I give him credit for the attempt, I can't justify the lackluster final result.