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The English Patient: Collector's Series

It was in 1996 that Anthony Minghella committed a crime called The English Patient that will likely hound him for the remainder of what one hopes will be an enduringly brilliant career. It was, and still is, a marvelous work of adaptation — a paring down and intensifying of Michael Ondaatje's "unfilmable" fever dream of a novel that gobbled up nine Academy Awards and, most naggingly, was instantly acclaimed as a "masterpiece" by many influential film critics. And therein resides the heart of his transgression. There have, of course, been any number of runaway critical sensations since, but few have been promoted with the singular shamelessness of Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, and the distaste for his media-mugging methods have unfortunately stained Minghella, whose subsequent films have been tarred in many respectable circles as little more than soulless "Oscar Bait." This is a shame, because Minghella, while undeniably complicit in the award-whoring onslaught occasioned by these year-end releases (such lobbying is contractual), is one of the few major filmmakers working today in the literate-yet-crowd-pleasing tradition of old Hollywood epic wranglers like William Wyler, Victor Fleming, and George Stevens — men who could tame difficult texts and make them palatable for the masses, while losing none of the material's vital intelligence. Viewed outside of the acrimonious present tense, it's not only possible to appreciate Minghella's sensational ability to connect with thematically complex novels and turn out structurally airtight pictures that resonate emotionally, but essential to wonder how he exists at all in a climate where simplification (e.g. Titanic or, more recently, Seabiscuit) sells. A writer-director this smart and this skilled should not be getting pilloried on the basis of his studio association.

After all, it's nearly impossible to think of another filmmaker working today up to the challenge of condensing Ondaatje's elusive exploration of love, death, betrayal, and nationality set amid World War II, staying true to its tragically romantic core, yet actually expanding on the text to give it an air of the personal. Such is Minghella's staggering achievement as he deftly manages the flashback-laden tale of Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian cartographer who conducts a torrid and ill-fated affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the fiercely independent wife of a colleague, that ends in a fiery plane crash, leaving the Count an unidentifiable and selectively amnesic chunk of scarred flesh cared for by the unlucky Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche). Overwhelmed by grief, and needing to tend to Almasy's rapidly deteriorating health in a stationary setting, Hana sets up shop in an abandoned Italian villa where Almasy slowly begins to "remember" the details of his past life. As his betrayal comes into focus, others are drawn to this sorrowful retreat, including the mysterious Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who might be seeking vengeance for falling victim to Almasy's misdeeds, and Singh (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh minesweeper with whom Hana falls in love.

The story proceeds briskly, so stuffed with incident that it never "breathes" like the Lean films to which it has facilely been compared. Those works were bound up in the immediacy of recently lived history, and always seemed cheerfully celebratory of nationality. Minghella's The English Patient is their antithesis; a bold work of romantic anarchy that loathes nationalism and its attendant warfare, with Herodotus serving as its historical touchstone. Though time and place are expertly evoked through the award-winning production and costume design of Stuart Craig and Ann Roth respectively, the film often transcends its temporal trappings as it flits back and forth from present to past to somewhere in between, taking on an imagined quality that mutes any concerns about the alleged distortion of the historical record (Almasy has frequently been accused an unrepentant Nazi collaborator). Though the unavoidably burdensome narrative load probably restrains the film from taking flight as often as it should, the blurring of time creates its own sweet madness, driving the viewer into a sensual reverie as intense as Almasy and Katharine's unforgettable Christmas dinner coupling. Meanwhile, Minghella repeatedly invokes the elemental dominion of nature that makes a mockery of man's borders: Hana falling face first into the mud as she learns of her lover's death; the sandstorm trapping Almasy and Katharine in the truck, encouraging their forbidden love; the fire that robs Almasy of his identity. All is perfectly in place under Minghella's aegis, but their alchemic convergence seems the doing of a higher power. That's something worthy of "masterpiece," no matter who's footing the bill.

*          *          *

Miramax Home Entertainment has re-released The English Patient as part of its "Collector's Series," though it's hard to believe any collector will be happy with the shoddy anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) where John Seale's wonderful soft-focus cinematography often looks blurry. Happily, Walter Murch's incomparable sound design is well served by a terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track; if one aspect of the presentation had to be "off," better, then, that it's the picture. Extras on this two-disc set are plentiful, and occasionally as special as the film itself. Particularly superb is the newly recorded solo commentary from Minghella, which finds the filmmaker effortlessly shifting gears from a discussion of the picture's rich thematic texture to more anecdotal remembrances, like breaking his ankle while shooting an early beach sequence. The other commentary, teaming Minghella with Ondaatje and legendary producer Saul Zaentz, is obviously older, but still a worthwhile listen. Disc Two offers up a multitude of featurettes yielding interesting insights, but they're sloppily segmented and often redundant. The most cohesive of the group is the CBC-produced "The Making of The English Patient" (53 min.), which largely comprises on-set interviews. Also good is "Master Class with Anthony Minghella" (20 min.), a fancily titled collection of seven deleted scenes prefaced by rationale for their eliding from the director. "About Michael Ondaatje" (22 min.) is a five-chapter interview with the novelist, while "From Novel to Screenplay" (7 min.) features comments from the cast and crew about the tricky adaptation. "Filmmaker Conversations" boasts chopped-up interviews with Minghella (32 min.), Zaentz (19 min.), Ondaatje (6 min.), and, most valuably, Murch (27 min.), whose thoughts on digital editing are a must. "The Formidable Saul Zaentz" (2 min.) is an abrupt and useless thumbnail sketch of his career, while "A Historical Look at the Real Count Almasy" (8 min.) is a forgiving bit of contextual information. Other brief segments include "The Work of Stuart Craig" (4 min.) and "The Eyes of Phil Bray – Still Photographer" (3 min.) Rounding out the disc are three rhapsodic text reviews from Roger Ebert, Peter Travers, and David Thomson, and a collection of trailers for other Miramax titles. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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