A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)

The "prestige motion picture" is a familiar genre: It's typically a movie derived from a distinguished literary source or a biopic about a distinguished historic figure, with a cast full of major actors, but designed not so much to advance the art of film as to attract critical raves and awards -- particularly Oscars. There are plenty of examples among the best-picture Oscar winners: A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966), Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982), Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984), Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985), and The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987). (The 1980s seemed to be particularly dominated by prestige-seekers.) The trouble is that once the initial attraction of these films has faded, few people seem to remember them fondly or want to watch them again. I'd rather watch The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) today than sit through A Man for All Seasons, and I would say the same for Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1981), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Prizzi's Honor (John Huston, 1985), and Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) when put in competition with the prestige best-picture winners of their respective years. So I watched The English Patient last night to test my theory that prestige movies don't hold up over time. It fits the category precisely: It's based on a Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje; it has a distinguished cast, three of whom were nominated for acting Oscars, including Juliette Binoche, who won; it earned raves from The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Roger Ebert; it raked in 12 Oscar nominations and won nine of them -- picture, supporting actress, director Anthony Minghella, cinematographer John Seale, art direction, costumes, sound, film editor Walter Murch (who also shared in the Oscar for sound), and composer Gabriel Yared. And sure enough, there are films from 1996 that I'd rather watch again than The English Patient, including  Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen), Lone Star (John Sayles), and Trainspotting (Danny Boyle). But I also have to say that of all the "prestige" best picture winners, The English Patient makes the best case for the genre. It's a good movie, with a mostly well-crafted screenplay by Minghella from a book many thought unfilmable, though it still tries to carry over too much from the novel, such as the character of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), whose function in the film, to provoke Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) into uncovering his story, could have been served equally well by Hana (Binoche). But the performances still seem fresh and committed. Binoche, though designated a supporting actress, carries the film by turning Hana into a kind of central consciousness. I was surprised at how much heat is generated by Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine, considering that they are both usually rather icy performers. There are some beautifully staged scenes, like the one in which Kip (Naveen Andrews) "flies" Hana so she can view the frescoes high in a church. And Murch's sound editing gives the film a marvelous sonic texture, starting with the mysterious clinking sounds at the film's beginning, which are then revealed to be the bottles carried by an Arab vendor of potions. Murch's ear and Seale's eye make the film an enduring audiovisual treat.