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English patient.

It's a pretty picture, to be sure; an Emotional Grande Tour of the windswept Sahara and impossibly gorgeous characters engaged in a do-or-die tale told in Tolstoy meets - National Geographic style.

Of course, The English Patient is a classic. It's got all those great themes: all-consuming passion, personal versus political interests, self sacrifice versus betrayal. And bags of Oscars too.

In fact, The English Patient is considered such a great film that Canadians and Brits are quietly arguing over which country deserves more credit.

"Isn't it wonderful that the English are doing so well this year with the Oscars for The English Patient?" British novelist Margaret Drabble recently told the Maple Leaf Club here. She was recounting an incident her husband, biographer Michael Holroyd, had experienced the day before in Cambridge.

"Actually, I think you'll find the film is based on a book written by a Canadian, Michael Ondaatje," Holroyd told the man.

"Oh no, no, no," the man argued. "I think you'll find you're wrong there."

One week later, the gushing continued at a private screening I attended at the National Film Theatre. Here, before a crowd of international critics and journalists, the Booker-prize-winning Ondaatje and British film director Anthony Minghella bowed down before each other in praise and thanksgiving so lavish it was embarrassing.

Admittedly, the story is compelling. It's about a dashing archaelogist, brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, who, just before World War II breaks out, becomes involved in a passionate affair with his friend's wife. After the distraught husband dies in an attempt to kill his wife's lover, she is left injured in the desert. When the Allies refuse to help the archaeologist rescue his mistress, he betrays vital secrets to the Germans in exchange for a plane. But he arrives too late to save her and, blinded by tears, his plane crashes, leaving him horribly burnt and in excruciating pain. Eventually, he persuades the French Canadian nurse who is looking after him in Tuscany to give him a drug overdose while she reads to him from Herodotus.

Romantic stuff.

As the film ended, I couldn't fail to notice all the sniffing going on around me. Some were even sobbing.

Oh, for gawd's sake, I thought, dry-eyed. It's only a film!

Actually, it bothered me that, unlike the weeping masses around me, I remained strangely unmoved.

Why, I wondered?

The answer is this. Beautiful as the film is, its message is quite dangerous. While I have always appreciated the moral minefield that any grand passion presents--indeed, this is a topic that the greatest novelists and playwrights have wrestled with--The English Patient is a moral swamp. With great talent, elegance and subtlety, it condones and romanticizes euthanasia, treachery and adultery. It makes the "it's bigger than both of us" mentality more understandable and justifiable than now obsolete notions of duty and self-sacrifice.

In a century of moral decline, it seems, the philosophy of the novelist E. M. Forster has born its rotten fruit. As you'll remember, it was Forster who famously declared that if he was faced with the moral dilemma of having to choose between betraying his friend or his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. As you'll also remember, it was the likes of spies such as Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess who followed his sickly advice.

But none of this irritated me nearly as much as the fact that our hero, who betrays the Allies for his "friend," found inexplicable solace in a volume of Herodotus which he carried around like a talisman.

Herodotus was a witty Roman historian who had about as much to say about the meaning of life as Rod McKuen has about ethics, Julius Caesar about child raising or Shirley MacLaine about thermodynamics.

It was here, I think, that I could not longer take the gorgeous-to-look-at archaeologist too seriously. Sure, his hormones were raging and he was without doubt a sensitive New Age guy but, in the end, his reading habits revealed the pitiful truth: he was a bit dim.

But even that's not as worrying as the fact that, having been given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, The English Patient takes its viewers to the edge of a fantastically glamorous moral abyss and then encourages them, like lemmings, to jump in.

Granted, films have never raised the moral sensibility of any society but they often reflect its moral temperature.

It seems ours is delirious with high fever, all the while congratulating its patients for their acute intelligence and enlightened compassion.

Paula Adamick writes from London, England where she recently founded a newspaper for Canadian expatriates.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Catholic Insight
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:May 1, 1997
Words:775
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