The English Patient

directed by Anthony Minghella

review by Gary Tooze

Producers are not always considered important creative contributors to a film. Saul Zaentz is the premium exception. Working independently, he purchases strong literary works (`"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' "Amadeus,'' `"The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' etc. ) and turns the film adaptation into his personal projects. Zaentz, and many critics, loved Minghella's first film, "Truly, Madly, Deeply," made in 1991.  Zaentz decided that he wanted to work with him. Minghella brought "The English Patient" to him and thus was a brief renaissance of classical, emotionally charged, visually sumptuous cinema. Zaentz was courageous and obstinate and Miramax, a division of Disney, bailed out the  production for the almighty dollar. Sticking to his guns with the casting there are no American "stars" (Willem Dafoe's, as Caravaggio, the exception) in The English Patient perhaps keeping that part of the budget in check. It was shot in North Africa and Italy made for the paltry sum ( By Hollywood standards ) of $31 million, proving a better investment than Microsoft, and garnering 11 Academy nominations taking 9 of them home with the massive bulk of its revenue arriving after that acclaim.


The English Patient is a non-linear story that has an elliptical structure, beginning and ending with the same scene whilst delicately meandering back and forth from the late 30's Africa, to 1945 Italy... just as the amnesiac title character recalls the events that his memory is gradually regaining. Minghella is able to smooth over what ought to have been extremely confusing gaps and jumps in chronology with splintered structures and individual narratives about characters that are often never linked together. In the end he has created an extremely coherent story which is set against an backdrop of complex political, archaeological and love triangle vistas.


Like other drama films, The English Patient centers around the defining moments in one, or a few peoples, lives. War and the threat of war are most effective for these personal dramas which often coincide with the characters most impassioned love affairs. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient had the premise already set with his winner of Britain's prestigious Booker prize, the novel of the same name. The English Patient as a literary work has become one of the most popular and widely read in the past decade. Minghella went about the impossible task of writing the screenplay, weaving through the labyrinthine of the novel.


Before even the first scene, The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter's brush outlining a dancing figure on a rough surface. We have no idea who or where the painter is.  We will be enlightened before the end of this fascinating film as the pieces of the puzzle start to come together.

Questions like this are one of the things I enjoyed most about director and screen writer Anthony Minghella's magnificent cinematic contribution to the forgotten genre of expertly honed melodramas. His themes become so complex, deeply layered, and subtly defined that it sustains such longevity in re-watch-ability. 

As Roger Ebert says:

“It’s the kind of movie you should see at least twice--first for the questions, the second time for the answers."


Katherine's painting in the first scene ( actually as the first credits come up ) drifts onto the contours of the Tunisian desert and gracefully "swims" along the rippled sand dunes peaks and valleys. "Swims" as in the "Cave of Swimmers". There is no chance to make this parallel except on a second viewing.

With the help of breathtakingly epic photography of much deserved Academy Award winner John Seale, Minghella folds the symphony of images and a mass of material into a 161-minute true masterpiece reminiscent of David Lean grandeur. His accomplishment seems Herculean. Minghella shows himself as a complex and meticulous artist whose work will last as long as the paintings in the "Cave of Swimmers". Not only can he be compared to Lean in the richness of his visual sense but also in his stalwart attention to details and fragments of memory that transplant strong feelings before we can hope to understand their significance in the story. His creative camera angles add a further depth to his film craft that pushes him to the forefront of influential directors of this era. 

Quote from Richard Malloy:

" Here's a director who's films are so intricately and carefully composed that a re-edit is a practical impossibility (in this way, he's very much like Hitchcock in that he constructs his puzzle ahead of time - there's really only one way it can fit together). Each shot, each scene, each tiny bit of information leads inexorably to the next, building upon what came before, fleshing out themes and drawing together that which previously seemed disparate and unrelated. Every tiny musical theme, every object in the mise-en-scene, every cinematic gesture no matter how subtle has meaning - and it's all of-a-piece. "



Much of the central theme of the story is liturgical and derived from E.M. Forster's celebrated dictum that, if he were forced to choose between betraying his friends and betraying his country, the conflict of private feeling over public duty, he would hope to have the guts to betray his country. The novel, The English Patient can respectfully be an ode to Herodotus, the first western historian.

The book that was found on the psychologically complex loner, Almasy's, badly burned body—an old leather-bound pocket-book of the "Herodotus' Histories ", with scraps, notes, poems and drawings that he has pasted or folded inside is a major clue to telling us his story.


The film contrasts the pale sepias of the Tunisian desert with the lush greens of Northern Italy surrounding the abandoned Tuscan monastery where the story shares how war has had it's effect on five of it's characters.

Hana ( Juliette Binoche ) is a French-Canadian nurse who must stay with Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), who, in Egypt before the war, was attached to the Royal Geographic Society, and is now horribly burnt and disfigured and referred to as "The English Patient". She acts not only as his foil and to counter balance his stories, but as a conduit for him to express to, as we, the audience can also then hear his story. The war has damaged her heart and she is subtly healed by his revealing story. Her own experiences with love and death, which at first seem devastating in relative terms, pale in comparison to Almasy's with the confident and witty Katherine (played by Kristin Scott Thomas).  Caravaggio ( Willem Dafoe )is also instrumental in helping Almasy, who has no recollection of previous events, rediscover some of the more agonizing details of his past.

Perhaps deeply intellectual, juxtaposition with a variety of interesting parallels, especially between Count Almasy and Hana are another strong theme in the story. Both have felt the sting of death after love because of war-time activity. Both feel cursed and reticent to express that emotion again. The monastery is not only for his removal of pain, but for her as well. As he opens up to her and us, Hana's own physiological pain disappears. Her wounded heart is mending. He becomes her father-figure ( she can be seen playing Hopscotch by herself, and mentions to Bomb disposal expert Hardy, played by Kevin Whately, how she "feels as clumsy as a child" ), and Ondaatje's book informs us that Hana's own father was burned to death fighting in France. Her daughter-like kisses on his leather textured head complete the bond.


Almasy's look of utter joy as he beholds the hidden art treasures of the "Cave of Swimmers" is repeated in Hana's expression as Kip hoists her to the top of the cavernous cathedral ceiling to explore the magnificent paintings found there.

There are only two episodes in the film that characters show their sorrow by openly weeping. Hana must fight to overcome her emotions and regain her professionalism as she administers the lethal overdose that will end Count Almasy's life. Almasy is allowed to reminisce his great love affair ( as the audience finally sees Katherine's outcome ) with it's tragic ending. Hana reads to him ( and us ) and he drifts to an endless sleep.

"Cheek to Cheek".

Played on the radio as tormented Geoffrey Clifton witnesses his wife's infidelity from the back of a taxi, it is also the song played as Almasy is carried out in the rain as the end of the war is celebrated by the five characters.


The horribly burnt and disfigured face of the " English" patient compares to the handsome profile of the Count played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes who has the looks of a 1940's matinee idol. He has the magnetism of a young Bogart as his character displays much of the strong silent attributes that Bogie did in such films as Casablanca. Fiennes, like Bogart, is also a magnificent and versatile actor.  Almasy is a quiet, brooding, self-centered man, but Fiennes is able to give him a sympatric angle by eventually showing us his weaknesses. This is especially true as he convalesces in the monastery. He subtly becomes a matchmaker for the wholesome romance between the Sikh named Kip ( played by Naveen Andrews ), a bomb disposal expert, and Hana. It provides a balance to the moral ambiguity around his own . A love with as strong a passion as can only found in adultery. Minghella is able to convey this without ever becoming vulgar.


Minghella is so detailed that his lighting fluctuates as the bright red flairs burn into the night sky as strong moment of truth can be read in Katherine's eyes as she returns his loving gaze. Their restraints are are shortly to become overthrown.


Countering the passion of Katherine and Almasy is the wholesome love affair of Hana and Kip. In the scene above he reaches out to her in with yet further Minghella beautiful imagery, leaving her a trail of snail shells with a small burning flame inside, leading her to him.


Subtly Almasy's noble character requests his euthanasia from Hana by tipping over the box of morphine.

It makes a terrific DVD ( No extras from Miramax ) and even better Laserdisc that Criterion went to the mat with it's additions. The DVD is presented on one side in dual-layer format and has been letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.82:1 and no 16:9 enhancement. The color transfer is excellent, and the film’s many challenging lighting effects are presented without flaw. The stereo surround sound is superb, with a deep dimensional atmosphere powerfully impacting at appropriate moments. The Dolby Digital track is even richer, with a more detailed mix and slightly stronger surround separations. the Laserdisc, unlike the DVD is filled with extra's and deleted scenes with commentary by Minghella himself.

Is The English Patient melodramatic? Of course, but it' is so subtle and finely detailed that it simply warms its viewers as opposed to smothering them. Many of the scenes reflecting on the past without purpose can be quite lengthy, and for the uninitiated viewer are seen as unwanted interruptions. Today's cheap-thrill following has viewed this as boring. How unfortunate. There is no casual, filler dialogue. It is all rich with mystery and love, often following multiple storylines is difficult for many viewers and the characterizations perhaps far too subtle for most of today's modern audiences. This is a film for lovers of classic literature and sweeping epic love stories flowing ( but not overflowing ) with romance. It is not often made today. For what it attempted, it achieved perfection.

Regardless of enjoying the style of story or the story itself, from an analytical standpoint of superior production values it is a work of brilliance. It's well worth watching, several times even, for this is a rich, compelling motion picture, and you'll learn more from each viewing. The characters seem to blossom forth with each viewing as you cannot help but embrace them.

There is no reason to give it anything except out of


Full Cast and Crew for

English Patient, The (1996)  


Directed by

Anthony Minghella   


Writing credits (WGA) (in credits order)

Michael Ondaatje   (novel)



Anthony Minghella   (screenplay)


Cast (in credits order) verified as complete 

Ralph Fiennes ....  Almásy 

Juliette Binoche ....  Hana 

Willem Dafoe ....  Caravaggio 

Kristin Scott Thomas ....  Katharine Clifton 

Naveen Andrews ....  Kip 

Colin Firth ....  Geoffrey Clifton 

Julian Wadham ....  Madox 

Jürgen Prochnow ....  Major Muller 

Kevin Whately ....  Hardy 

Clive Merrison ....  Fenelon-Barnes 

Nino Castelnuovo ....  D'Agostino 

Hichem Rostom ....  Fouad 

Peter Rühring ....  Bermann 

Geordie Johnson ....  Oliver 

Torri Higginson ....  Mary 

Liisa Repo-Martell ....  Jan 

Raymond Coulthard ....  Rupert Douglas 

Philip Whitchurch ....  Corporal Dade 

Lee Ross (I) ....  Spalding 

Anthony Smee ....  Beach Interrogation Officer 

Matthew Ferguson (I) ....  Injured Canadian Soldier 

Jason Done ....  Kiss Me Soldier 

Roger Morlidge ....  Sergeant, Desert Train 

Simon Sherlock ....  Private, Desert Train 

Sebastian Schipper ....  Interrogation Room Soldier 

Fritz Eggert ....  Interrogation Room Soldier 

Sonia Mankaï ....  Arab Nurse 

Rim Turkhi ....  Aicha 

Sebastian Rudolph ....  Officer in Square 

Thoraya Sehill ....  Interpreter in Square 

Sondess Belhassen ....  Woman with Baby in Square 

Dominic Mafham ....  Officer, El Taj 

Gregor Truter ....  Corpora, El Taj 

Salah Miled ....  Bedouin Doctor 

Abdellatif Hamrouni ....  Ancient Arab 

Samy Azaiez ....  Kamal 

Habib Chetoui ....  Al Auf 

Philippa Day ....  Officer's Wife (as Phillippa Day) 

Amanda Walker (I) ....  Lady Hampton 

Paul Kant ....  Sir Ronnie Hampton 


Produced by

Steve E. Andrews   (associate) 

Scott Greenstein   (executive) 

Bob Weinstein   (executive) 

Harvey Weinstein   (executive) 

Saul Zaentz   

Alessandro von Norman   (line) 


Original music by

Gabriel Yared   


Non-original music by

Johann Sebastian Bach   (from "Goldberg Variations") 


Cinematography by

John Seale   


Film Editing by

Pat Jackson (II)   (associate) 

Walter Murch   



Michelle Guish   

David Rubin (III)   


Production Design by

Stuart Craig   


Art Direction

Aurelio Crugnola   


Set Decoration

Aurelio Crugnola   

Stephanie McMillan   


Costume Design by

Ann Roth (I)   


Makeup Department

Giusy Bovino ....  hair stylist 

Fabrizio Sforza ....  makeup artist 


Production Management

Franco Ballati ....  unit production manager 

Lynn Kamern ....  unit production manager 


Second Unit Director or Assistant Director

Steve E. Andrews ....  first assistant director (as Steve Andrews) 

Gianni Arduini ....  first assistant director: second unit 

Andrea Girolami ....  assistant director 

Moez Kamoun ....  first assistant director: Tunisia 

Peter Markham ....  second unit director 

Enrico Marrari ....  second assistant director 

Emma Schofield ....  second assistant director 

Luigi Vallini ....  assistant director 


Art Department

Taieb Jallouli ....  art director: Tunisia 


Sound Department

Michael Axinn ....  apprentice sound editor 

Mark Berger (I) ....  sound re-recording mixer 

Malcolm Fife ....  foley editor 

Pat Jackson (II) ....  sound supervisor 

Stephen Kearney (II) ....  assistant sound editor 

Mark Levinson (II) ....  adr supervisor 

Marnie Moore ....  foley artist 

Walter Murch ....  sound 

Jennifer Myers ....  foley artist 

Christopher Newman (I) ....  production sound mixer 

John Nutt ....  sound editor 

Margie O'Malley ....  foley artist 

David Parker (III) ....  sound re-recording mixer 

Robert Randles ....  music editor 

Ivan Sharrock ....  sound 

Diego Taborda ....  sound intern 

Jennifer L. Ware ....  sound effects editor 


Visual Effects

Richard Bain ....  digital effects compositor 

Frazer Churchill ....  digital effects compositor 

Dan Glass ....  visual effects compositor 

Dennis Lowe ....  visual effects supervisor 

Kevin Phelan ....  scanning and recoding producer: CFC London (uncredited) 



Jim Dowdall ....  stunt supervisor 

Franco Maria Salamon ....  stunt co-ordinator (as Franco Salamon) 


Other crew

Remi Adefarasin ....  director of photography: second unit 

Amel Becharnia ....  production coordinator 

Andrea Borella ....  transportation manager 

Phil Bray (I) ....  still photographer 

Fabiomassimo Dell'Orco ....  location manager 

Dianne Dreyer ....  script supervisor 

Daniel Farrell ....  first assistant editor 

Morris Flam ....  gaffer 

Paul J. Franklin ....  computer animator 

Giorgio Gallani ....  location manager 

Judith Goodman ....  production coordinator 

Robert Grahamjones ....  assistant editor 

Hannah Green ....  researcher 

Ling Ling Li ....  music coordinator 

Julian Mann ....  computer animator 

Harry Rabinowitz ....  conductor 

Robert Randles ....  soundtrack producer: Golden Reel 

Keith Roberts (II) ....  computer animator 

Deborah Ross ....  title designer 

Enzo Sisti ....  production auditor 

Jeffery Stephens ....  assistant picture editor 

Aminta Townshend ....  set production assistant 


Technical Information

Release Information:

Studio: Miramax Home Entertainment

Reason for Rating: For sexuality, some violence and language.

Theatrical Release Date: November 15, 1996

DVD Release Date: March 24, 1998

Run Time: 162 minutes

Production Company: Miramax

Package Type: Keep Case

Aspect Ratio(s):

Widescreen Letterboxed - 1.82:1

Discographic Information:

DVD Encoding: Region 1

Layers: Dual

Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)

Available subtitles: Spanish

Edition Details:

• Region 1 encoding (US and Canada only)

• Color, Widescreen, Closed-captioned, HiFi Sound, Surround Sound

• Widescreen letterbox format

• ASIN: 6304806426

  Hit Counter