THE ENGLISH PATIENT (2013)
Running Time: 162 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Jurgen Prochnow
Spoiler warning: This is all spoilers. So if you haven’t seen this piece of crap yet and actually plan to see it you’re too stupid to appreciate my argument anyway so don’t even try to read it.
I was channel surfing and came upon the remake of GODZILLA. The first remake of GODZILLA, but I’m sure there will be others (like the one opening in six weeks). It was the part of the picture where attack helicopters are chasing Godzilla through a maze of canyons created by the high rise buildings of whatever city we’re supposed to be in. One by one the choppers crash and burn. But number 4 is still going. It’s all up to number 4. So it seems the hunter has become the hunted. Number 4 turns this way and that. Godzilla might be behind any corner. Feverishly the pilot manages to navigate the maze when, inevitably, number 4 is slapped away and crashes and burns. All the while I kept thinking that if the pilot wanted to avoid Godzilla all he would have had to do was go up.
Then I remembered that helicopters really couldn’t fly in narrow canyons. The downwash from the rotors hits the ground and rebounds up the side of the buildings (or a canyon walls) then swirl above and rob the rotors of their aerodynamic advantage. It’s how John Landis killed Vic Morrow and those Vietnamese kids. It was a helicopter stunt in a narrow canyon. Then with all this academic falderal I realized I was investigating the aerodynamic logic of a movie about an 80 ft. dinosaur attacking New York.
The question is, how much verisimilitude is necessary to enjoy a movie? Obviously, today, the most popular films, the so called “tent pole” films, those designed to entice the widest possible audience, are the ones with the least verisimilitude. They are zombie, vampire, robots from outer space, cyborgs, time travel fantasies, ghosts, monsters, Tolkien antics, space operas, everything and anything that breaks the laws of the physical universe. Why bother? People love it.
Then there are the respectable movies, the serious films, and the Academy Award™ films. How much verisimilitude do they have to have? Are all films on greased runners to slide us through a hallucinated universe?
I didn’t see THE ENGLISH PATIENT when it came out. In truth I have seen relatively few films since 1994. When the movie stations, HBO and Showtime, have a special free view, I notice that I have seen few of the post ‘94 films, and missing a lot of films back to ‘89. Even Independent and foreign films shown on Sundance and IFC are among my unseen films. Most of the time when I catch up with these films my opinion is often, well, I didn’t miss much.
Then there was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. There had been a lot of partisan conflict pro and con over THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It won no less than ten Oscars™ including Best Picture. Yet there were some who complained bitterly. There was an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine grows exasperated at her friends and colleagues mooning over the film to the point where her boss insists on taking her to see the film and while he sits there teary eyed she squirms in her seat and just shouts out “Die already!”
Everyone is aghast at Elaine’s reaction as they sit teary eyed, overwhelmed by the romance. But what is the romance? It’s nothing more than our old friend infidelity, except here it’s clothed in the veddy veddy colonial carryings on in Cairo and the western desert in the period before WW2. Falling in love by campfire light while reading Herodotus. Oh please. It reminds me of love scenes in movies where we’re assured that it all takes place on 800 thread count sheets. It’s making love. I always seem to hear the gravelly voice of Henry Miller saying, “Don’t you mean fucking?”
Of course the story is told in flashbacks. Now usually flashbacks are a narrative devise used to reveal the plot non-sequentially. But here the use of flashbacks is merely to draw out this basic story of infidelity and revenge for more than two hours. It’s like one of those $500 hamburgers. It’s got wagyu beef and truffles but it’s still a hamburger.
If it were taking place in a Bronx tenement it would all be over in half an hour. It would be just another double murder/suicide. But with everybody downing gin and tonics at the club and a bit of the old scholars shuffle in colonial offices, it presents a certain retro romanticism (at least as far as furnishings and accessories go) which is beyond the experience of the audience but which they want to believe existed. I’ve been to these places and people are so bored that adultery is the rule rather than the exception. There’s nothing else to do but to fuck each other’s wives and when that grows tiresome to have a bash at the local brothels. A steady flow of tourists is a bit too much to be hoped for.
Tits and ass with class Lenny Bruce would call it. This drawing things out reminds me of reality tv or the quiz programs which tease before they say the answer is right and we’ll get to see something we’re promised after some adverts. This is why Elaine became so frustrated.
Of course the action, while filled with incident, is patently absurd. First of all, it doesn’t pass my Lady Bracknell test. One suicide by bi-plane can only be regarded as a misfortune. But two suicides by bi-plane suggests carelessness. Just a little gold flake on our burger.
Then there’s the part where our hero walks three days through the desert to bring back some help for his love that he leaves battered and bleeding in a cave. He finally makes it to the British outpost. Somehow in between the first bi-plane suicide and our hero’s arrival WW2 has broken out and instead of raising the alarm and getting help for his lady love, he is interned. The interment is done by a sergeant major. Now they may be the backbone of the British Army but they do not have the authority to arrest and intern people willy-nilly. If someone walked into town from the desert and there was anything suspicious about him, he would have to be debriefed by Intelligence, which would have meant he would have been interrogated by an officer. Once he met an officer they would have matched up friends in Cairo and help would be on the way.
The fact that he had a foreign name would have meant little because obviously he was a gentleman. There was a similar incident in WW I where a British spy was found in the Sinai with the name Meinertzhagen and he turned out to be a British Officer (see the incident in The Lighthorsemen). So, no British Sergeant Major was likely to assume the authority of an officer in interning a foreign gentleman whatever his name or nationality was.
But OK, lets move on.
When our hero is interred and escapes it’s the first days of the war. The Afrika Korps arrived in early 1941. What had he been doing until then? He delivers his maps to them in exchange for a bi-plane that had previously been squirreled away. Hadn’t he returned to the cave in the year and a half of freedom? So he too smashes into the desert with horrible burns. He is rescued and brought to a British medical unit.
Now this gets me. Instead of sending him on to an equipped hospital in Tobruk or Alexandria or Cairo even, they schlepp him through the loss of Tobruk, the victory at El Alamein, the landings in Sicily, the fight up the Italian boot to wind up in Florence (champagne for the burger?). He’s a burn patient after all and they hold on to them moving him around from battle to battle for four years. Not sending him to a hospital. Seems a bit incredible. Seems insane.
Thus the other reason for the flashback structure–time makes no sense here. On the Wikipedia page for the novel it’s categorized as “meta fiction”. I know Borges was able to freeze a bullet in time to give a philosopher about to be executed time to finish his work. But that was exactly what the story was “about”. Here time means nothing. It’s just something to be dipped into to supply incident and drama. Its crudely manipulative, exposed by its distortion of any logic, by its deliberate defiance of verisimilitude.
But is verisimilitude needed? A critique based on the unlikeliness of the events in a film can be pointed out to any number of people and those who like the picture will still like. There is no picture too terrible that somebody doesn’t like it. 200 foot monsters or toasted Hungarians; it’s all gist for the mill. But I still can’t believe this piece of shit, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, won ten Oscars™.
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