Who bears more responsibility for the declining reputation of The English Patient: Elaine Benes, or Harvey Weinstein? On its release at the end of 1996, The English Patient was widely hailed as a rousing, romantic throwback to the epics of David Lean, and during an Academy Award season dominated by upstart indie films (including the likes of Fargo, Shine, Sling Blade, and Secrets & Lies), this more ambitious, old-Hollywood version of an indie film came out on top. Yet two weeks before the 1997 Oscar telecast, Seinfeld aired an episode called “The English Patient,” in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character Elaine is ostracized by her boss and friends for insisting that the future Best Picture winner is excruciatingly tedious, and that everyone who claimed otherwise was delusional. Around that same time, grumbling began to surface about the movie’s dicey political message (which seems to indicate that it’s okay to be a Nazi-abetting adulterer if you’re really in love), as well as about Weinstein’s ruthless politicking, which garnered Miramax its biggest Oscar win to that point. No one’s going to take back The English Patient’s awards, or the hundreds of millions of dollars it earned at the global box office, but when people talk about The English Patient today, it’s usually not as one of the best movies of the ’90s, but as that boring prestige picture with its bought-and-paid-for statuettes.
To some extent, this is because The English Patient is a sweeping, sentimental, continent-hopping wartime romance more in line with the cinema of the mid-’60s than the mid-’90s. (It isn’t Fargo, in other words.) Any movie that begins with Juliette Binoche as a nurse who hesitates to express affection lest her loved ones die is going to have a tough time right off the bat with some audience members. Still… is The English Patient any good at the kind of tasteful, sophisticated melodrama it’s practicing? Quite so. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas give engaging performances as explorers who meet in North Africa in the late ’30s, embarking on an illicit affair against the backdrop of a dangerously beautiful desert landscape and a world hastening to war. And screenwriter-director Anthony Minghella—working closely with producer Saul Zaentz, editor Walter Murch, and cinematographer John Seale—elegantly elucidates the themes in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, showing how humanity’s preoccupation with drawing lines becomes all the more pointless in the shifting sands of the Sahara. Though excessively swoony at times, The English Patient is gorgeous to look at and expertly structured, as it slips back and forth between Fiennes’ wooing of Thomas and his days as a morphine-addicted burn victim in Binoche’s care. Altogether, The English Patient is a powerful meditation on how we’re all pulled toward feelings of ownership, even as we recognize the futility of it.
Minghella died unexpectedly in 2008 at age 54, and never had another success as massive as The English Patient, though his 1999 follow-up, The Talented Mr. Ripley, did reasonably well, and 2003’s Cold Mountain became a bigger hit than many remember, scoring a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Renée Zellweger. Like The English Patient, Cold Mountain has been tarred with the “middlebrow” brush, for obvious reasons: It’s an adaptation of a bestselling Charles Frazier novel, with a florid plot that sees Confederate soldier Jude Law deserting his post to journey home and help his true love Nicole Kidman save her farm. There are a lot of A-list actors in fancy costumes scattered about, delivering stiff dialogue in affected Southern accents. The movie should come packaged in a Styrofoam cooler, stamped “Oscar bait.”
Yet also like The English Patient, Cold Mountain is an especially artful model of the modern prestige pic. Working again with Murch and Seale, Minghella delivers a movie that moves, across time and space, linked by images and scenes suffused with real wonder and drama. After some awkward setup, Cold Mountain comes to life once Law meets loquacious sinner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kidman partners up with the tomboyish Zellweger. Minghella and Murch settle into a rhythm, cutting between Law’s Homeric odyssey and Kidman’s efforts to hold up against the effrontery of Ray Winstone’s home guard. In The English Patient, Binoche has a line about how in wartime “where you come from becomes important,” which is a notion the rest of that film both criticizes and confirms. Cold Mountain carries that theme even further, as good men get killed because of the uniforms they wear, while weak men take abominable liberties with their neighbors. Minghella’s two biggest movies were big, awards-friendly productions, but they aren’t soft. Between all the smooching and the earnest declarations, they bring out all the sharpest points of sprawling, involving stories.
Key features: Copious interviews and featurettes on The English Patient (including an hourlong CBC documentary made at the time the film was released), plus two commentary tracks and a Minghella-led tour through 20 minutes of deleted scenes; an equally generous package of featurettes and deleted scenes on Cold Mountain, highlighted by a Minghella/Murch comentary.