We often talk of how films ages, but what does this mean? We may enjoy a film more or less depending on the context, but unless it is restored or re-cut it remains set in stone as much as a Michelangelo sculpture. So it is clearly us the viewer that changes not the art. I am sure there was a time people enjoyed the artistry of The Birth of a Nation without noticing the horrendous racism of the plot. So what has prompted these thoughts of context? The English Patient.
I first saw the film on its original release in 1997. And that is the notable context of these ramblings. In 1997 I was a typically 21 year old film student with the arrogance and stupidity to believe I understood life and knew all that is worth knowing about film. In the near twenty years that have followed I have lived life and watched many more films than I had in the first twenty years of my existence. When I first saw the film I truly loved it. As a student of film I loved the old fashioned idea of the film reminiscent of Casablanca. I was in awe of the stunning cinematography by John Seale. Impressed by perfect structure that easily blends the two time periods. On a more base level, like any self respecting red blooded male film geek I was desperately in love with Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas having seen them in Three Colours: Blue and Four Weddings and a Funeral respectively.
Just weeks after raving about the film it picked up nine Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Anthony Minghella), Best Cinematography (John Seale), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche). Empowered by the critical success of the film I purchased the video (VHS) on the day of its release. I immediately watched the film again but forgot it over time. Then last year I watched it again for the first time in over ten years. Since that time, the video along with a few others has stood on the floor next to my TV and I have watched it three or four times.
Like Almásy’s (Ralph Fiennes) directions to Kip (Naveen Andrews) for reading Kipling the film has to be appreciated for what it is. A film rooted in the golden age of cinema with the luxury of embracing aspects of the previous fifty years while ignoring others. The themes of the film probably couldn’t have been expressed had it being made any earlier. With the freedom of distance we are able to explore understand a measured view. The brilliance of the filmmaking is the way all the questions of the source novel are explained without ever telling us that they are the questions. The film is so much more than this. There is a central plot and mystery that unfolds in the final act but you will get swept up in the film and forget that there is ever any mystery to uncover.
The thing that really made my write this article is Empire magazine. Out of curiosity I looked the movie up in the hope of understanding what others thought of it. Empireonline contains a rather sniffy postmodern four star review that doesn’t sit well as a representation of the film. I decided to pull out an old copy of the magazine from my loft (issue 94 from April 1997), there if found a more glowing five star review. There is no indication of when the online review is from but it clearly shows a cooling towards the film from the original glowing review. Is it because in a post 9-11 lines on a map have become more important in the way they were a generation ago and the ideas of the film are less acceptable, or is it just because the film has fallen out of fashion? The beauty of the film goes beyond the aesthetic and the humanity and into the poetry of the direction. Anthony Minghella in what is truly his finest hour balances a triumphant defiance hope with crippling Melancholia with true artistry. From the opening brushstrokes over the desert to their final mirror of Hana’s squinting vision of sunlight through the trees the film has a beauty underlined by Gabriel Yared’s haunting Oscar winning score.
I have got this far without mentioning Ralph Fiennes and Colin Firth. Both relatively early in their career, they are both perfectly cast is Willem Dafoe and the two female leads. On the subject of perfect casting: Having clearly read the novel, Kristin Scott Thomas wrote to director Anthony Minghella “I am ‘K’ in your film”. Minghella and producer Saul Zaentz resisted attempts from the studio to cast bigger names including Demi Moore. This ultimately caused them to lose their studio funding until Miramax stepped in. This goes beyond attention to detail, it is a passion to make the film as good as it could be, it really shows on the screen.
The stunning vistas do lose a little on the small screen other than that the film holds up as the masterpiece I remember watching at the cinema.