An English Patient

An English Patient

Based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje

Screenplay by Anthony Mingella

Directed by Anthony Mingella

The main thing I have to say about this film is you should watch it.  By far and away my favourite of the films I have had the pleasure of watching, it presents individual stories twisted together to express the tragic nature of war. No-one wins. At once real and surreal, the film mocks the apparent logic war predicates and exposes its scars.

‘An English Patient’ centres on a Hungarian hero, Laszlo, working, pre-war, as part of an international expedition to map Northern Africa. Falling in love with a colleague’s wife, they begin an affair in the desert, which ends when her husband discovers the betrayal and flies his plane, wife aboard, into his enemy. The enemy, our hero, survives, as does the woman in question, although her husband perishes in the crash. Her injuries force her love to walk three days to Cairo in search of aid. By now war has broken and his presence, as a foreign man, is suspect. As a consequence, he is held captive by the British, although manages to escape and trade his knowledge of the desert with the Germans for passage back to his love. She has died in his absence. He puts her in his plane to fly her body home and is shot down by the Germans. Here is where the film starts and tells its story intermittently flashing back to the love story of the past while telling the story of the present. His story.

The film in the present follows the life of a woman serving as a nurse for the British army who loses her boyfriend and her best friend within days of each other. Her pain and inability to cope is compounded through the film, and she demands of her superior to let her stay in an abandoned French castle with Laszlo, citing his health and inability to move due to his severe burns from the crash, as her reason.  This stay forms the basis of the film, as she deals with her emotions and hibernates from the grim nature of the world around her, and he deals with the lost love of his past and helplessness of his present. The two set up in a form of domestic bliss, but as the war around them deepens, their solitude is not kept for long. At first they are joined by a Canadian, who harbours a deep revenge against our hero, and second by the bomb disposal team, headed by a young Indian man called Kip, who offers Hana respite from her traumas.  As the war draws to an end, as does the life of our hero. But he leaves a legacy. The time hidden away with him working to relieve his wounds, helps Hana deal with her own and move on.

This film is peppered with references to the paranoia that war predicates. The assumption that everyone is part of the enemy, or trying to manipulate you, the awareness that people could be different to who they say they are. It makes the information you do hold, however small, so much more important. A Hungarian man at the outbreak of war is assumed to be part of the enemy by the British, purely because his story was unusual and his accent different. Paranoia is understandable. Basic civil liberties disappear during times of warfare. Freedom to come and go as you please being the most basic liberty which evaporates. Much like in ‘Sarah’s Key’, when the young boy is trapped in a cupboard, waiting for his sister who never returns, Katherine lies injured in a cave in the desert waiting for her love to return to save her. Neither can keep their promise because they are detained by the authorities.

‘Betrayals in war are childlike compared to betrayals in peace’. In his musings he scribes for Katherine, Laszlo makes this statement. In all logic, it should be the opposite. Surely there is so much more at stake at war when every small thing can have such an enormous impact? Is it because you expect it so much more in war, or because everything is in such a state in wartime that petty betrayals become just a part of the day rather than an enormous impact?

When two Canadians meet in the war in this film, they feel an instant bond, an irreconcilable connection which binds them closer than any others. This is the same in life. When you meet someone who is from where you’re from, or who knows someone you know, you feel an instant connection with them, In war this is magnified and intensified. Two Canadians meeting in the North African desert are immediately aligned. Regardless of the reality of who they are and what they are fighting for. How disorientating. To feel comfort in kinship but understand that the reality could be far from this truth. Could you trust anyone during this war?

‘There’s a war. Where you comes from becomes important.’

One answer could be because war is about power and ownership, to identify with the motivations of your government, you have to accept where you come from and where you belong is a fundamental priority of life and loyalty?

Hana is a fascinating figure. She is at once strong and weak, happy and sad, insightful and ignorant. She is the most real of women I have observed in any of the films I have watched so far. Introspective and emotional, unable to remove herself from what is happening around her, she retreats away from the world and creates a safe haven for herself after the death of those close to her.

‘Everyone I get close to dies.’

Wouldn’t you start to think you’re cursed? How were people expected to carry on amidst such grief? What were their coping mechanisms? We witness Hana’s strategy to retreat away into a dream-like world of castles and fairytales. Part Rapunzel, part Beauty and the beast, all self imposed, hiding herself in a beautiful far off land with an ugly man who can cause her no harm. She cuts her hair. She plays children’s games alone, she bathes in nature.

‘We have plums in the orchard. We have an orchard.’

How did other people cope with the unhappiness of war? Despite her relentless sense of fear for others, her fear for herself is not evident. Is this how it was in war? You resigned yourself to your own self destruction, it was the destruction of others that tore you apart?

This film re-raises the issue of foreigners fighting on behalf of the Brits. Kip is an Indian bomb specialist and represents the Indian community in the British army. How many foreign men fought for the Brits? From watching ‘Ice cold in Alex’, I know the Canadians fought for us. From my friend Terry’s input, I know the Jamaicans fought for us. Who else fought for us and our freedom? How did the hierarchy work? Were the alien soldiers incorporated into the British infrastructure or did they organise themselves? What happened to them afterwards? I resolve to find out how many people fought for the Brits in world war two, and what happened to them post D day celebrations. Kip, who bases himself at the castle while combing the area for left over mines, represents a further political discussion of the time; colonialism in the east. He quite clearly represents the separatists point of view in favour of independence, against the commonly held view the ‘natives’ were not capable of ruling themselves.

This is the second film I have watched set in the desert. I have never really imagined much of the Second World War taking place in the desert, so these two films have introduced me to how life would have been for those involved. These films both equally present the beauty, and the limitations of life in the desert. Many of the shots are perfect, correlating sky and sand, the beauty of the landscape dominating frame and painting a perfect picture of a land unknown to someone like me.

However, the desert is presented in a totally new light to that of ‘Ice cold in Alex’. Although it equally demonstrates the desert’s power over the human body with the onset of the sandstorm, it also beautifully captures the freedom of the space. Pre- war, when Laszlo, is there working, his team wear appropriate clothing, live in heat restraining tents and have as much water as they need. We can see the desert, with the appropriate tools, can be an extraordinary place to spend time. An evil and a wonder at the same time and only some basic elements alter your experience of it. The sandstorm that comes and engulfs the trucks is fantastically shot, and a great example of the unpredictability of the desert environment. I wonder how the British army faired against the sandstorms and if there are any tales of interest lying there. Suddenly the group are exposed, unprepared for existence against the desert in its new form. It is during this sandstorm Laszlo and Katherine are slung together in a jeep, defending themselves against the elements. The inside of the jeep is reminiscent of a bedroom and their conversation similar to that of pillow talk. Both conscious of their bodies and movement, every gesture and word emphasised and loaded. He talks of winds he knows, of little or no importance to second world war history, but hugely appealing to someone who likes to sail.

  • The Adjedge: a whirlwind from southern morocco which the Fellaheen tried to defend themselves against with knives
  • The Vigibli from Tunis which just rolls and rolls
  • The Hamatan, a red wind the mariners call the sea of darkness, which reaches as far as England, which can be mistaken for showers of blood.
  • The Samu, declared war on it and marched out against it in full battle dress

Are these real winds? I wonder.

Katherine is in many ways the strongest and the weakest of women I have observed in film. In her outward self she is capable, forthright, confident and perfectly willing to hold her own in the company of men. She quietly accepts the restrictions imposed on women and makes her own stand about things she finds important in her own way. She outshines many of the men that surround her, which evidently is a fact of some discomfort to the men themselves. ‘A woman should never learn to sew, and if she does, she shouldn’t admit it.’ A withdrawl from the classical female role is the only way women knew to distance themselves from the sexist system they habited. However, in her inner self, she is trapped in a marriage which is not loveless exactly, but passionless clearly. To leave a man who loves you so dearly is near on impossible today, let alone in the 40’s. The draw between Katherine and Laszlo is real and palpable, and is one of the most entrancing coupling in film I have witnessed. I believe the urgency they feel for each other, and feel relieved when they are together.

The love story in this film is just about the most perfect I have ever watched on screen. And its not because it is imposed against a background of war and desperation, because the war comes after. It is because it is raw love. Not chosen or real, but curious and infuriating, and played out so perfectly. The suspense of the story is intrinsic in the timings of the film. We know that Katherine dies when Michael gains his injuries. We know they love each other. But we don’t know why. But we agree, and know it is right. We have the privilege of watching it build. He is not a traditional hero. Awkward, arrogant, reluctant. Immensely high self expectation. A high self regard he battles constantly to maintain. Pompous yet seductive. In his late life, as a burn victim helpless and vulnerable he is self contained and sad, expressing a loneliness he readily concealed as a healthy man. His real sentiments of life are expressed once he has no skin to conceal himself with.

Christmas day in the desert consisted of the army sitting down, donned in Christmas hats and jovially drinking their drinks, eating the traditional dish and attempting to drown out their environment for a day. It seemed relatively calm and serene. The women fuss around the soldiers as they are served. I know that on one Christmas day in world war one, the Germans and the British set aside their differences and played football on no mans land. What happened during the Christmas celebrations of word war two? Was it like it was played out on this film? Did they always get to celebrate?

A strange addition to the film is of the character ‘Moose’, a Canadian wartime spy determined to avenge the loss of his digits by seeking all men involved in their demise and make them pay. Laszlo is one of those men, through his deal with the Germans to trade the maps they made. Moose behaves like a Nazi hunter committed to avenging himself rather than an entire race of people. I can’t help thinking he is unfair to blame others for what happened to him. He was a spy, he took risks, he should face the consequences. But then I never had all my fingers chopped off.  His character ends up inhabiting the castle with Hana and Laszlo, spending his time lurking and eking out his anger. He is like a witch in a Shakespeare play, outside, alienated and serving to demonstrate the demons of the key characters.

We see Moose’s interrogation room by the Germans. The obviousness of torture is evident. We see him loose his fingers. The younger German in the room are reluctant, implicit, but not wholly accepting of the situation they are in. It is interesting to see this portrayal of the younger generation uncertain of the senior’s actions. I often wonder about this generation of German soldiers. Following orders. Certain of their national pride. Uncertain of the way it is materialising. When I think of my own grandparents, I think of their role during the war with pride. Their contribution to our future. Their fearlessness at fighting for their own country, and their future generations. I wonder how my German peers feel about their grandparents. Weren’t they fighting for the same thing? Were they ware of what they were contributing to? Shouldn’t they feel proud their grandparents were so fearless in the face of what they thought was true? I read once that 99% of the Nazi army were not aware, or in accordance with the holocaust. They were not aware it was even happening, this was restricted to the 1% seniority of the Nazi party. So can the German youth feel proud of their grandparents? Or must they feel shame whenever they think of it? I wonder.

The climax of Hana and Kip’s relationship comes when he is called to a bomb in the town. Convoys celebrating the end of the war cause such a disturbance, the reverberations nearly set the bomb off. Again, a film using the end of the war, the masses celebrating peace to contrast an extreme situation for a character and exaggerate the difficulties faced by those who could not celebrate. In the end, he manages to stabilise the bomb, and thus can join in the celebrations. The end of the war brings an alterative celebration for our heroes. Hana, Moose and Kip take Laszlo out in the rain and dance till their heart’s content. Another small group bonded by their experience in the war, much like in ‘Ice cold in Alex’. Another group of 3 men, and one woman, maybe something similar to the ratio of sexes at war itself? Certainly a combination suitable for a random group bonded by mutual experience in wartime represented in film. In contrast, we see a party for the Brits that Kips’ colleagues partake in. Heavy drinking, singing, show off stunts and taking clothes off. A bit like how the Brits like a party now. The party ends sadly and suddenly though as Kip’s second in command finds an unexploded bomb as he climbs a statue in celebration. It happens again. Death in peacetime seems so much crueller than in wartime. To have taste freedom and have it taken seems far harder. I have a feeling this is a tool I will see frequently in these films.

One to watch. Time and time again.

Watch this space for ‘Where Eagle’s dare’ as recommended by my Dad.


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