English Patient | The Grace of Adjectives

Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” (1996).

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
The English Patient (1996)
Blu-ray (Miramax Lionsgate /2012)

Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” (1996) is worthy of high praise for a number of reasons. It expanded the beauty of Michael Ondaatje’s novel in just the right ways. Minghella clearly made use of the knowledge gleaned from the desert films that came before it, like Zoltan Korda’s “The Four Feathers” (1939) and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). The gorgeously fractured plot is masterly pieced together like a complex mosaic. The cinematography in the air and below is majestic. But it’s also the film’s subtle understanding of the grace of adjectives and words that should floor film-goers. Of course, the first and most obvious adjective is the erroneous nationality given to the dying patient, played by Ralph Fiennes, who is not English, but rather a Hungarian aristocrat named László Almásy. It is that adjective that determines the fate of the two main characters. As the patient’s nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) says, “It’s a war. Where you come from becomes important.”

The film starts in Italy, in 1944, with Hana taking the badly burned Almásy out of an army caravan of the wounded, in order to take care of him at an abandoned monastery. He’s dying and she sees no need to prolong his suffering through more bumpy roads in the back of a Red Cross truck. The monastery is nearly rubble, a remnant of the fighting that took place between the Germans and the allies. Hana finds a room and bed in the chapel for her patient, and a living quarters in the tiny attic above him for herself. In her room, she can peer through the broken floor slats to see if the patient is in need of help. At one point in the film, Hana reaches into her pocket and pulls out a plum, trying to encourage Almásy by telling him the monastery grounds bear fruit. She bites into the plum, it’s wet sticky juiciness visible in closeup, in order to break it down into a piece small enough to put into his mouth. It’s one of the finer scenes in film.

She places the fruit onto his lips. The delectable life and vitality of the fruit works in contrast to Almásy’s dry, burned skin before he takes it into his mouth with the reverence of a last communion. Then he says something remarkable: “It’s a very plum plum.” That line is reminiscent of the last verse of famed American poet Wallace Steven’s work “The Man On the Dump”, where he too provides a mirrored adjective: “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In other words, in some situations the traditional adjective isn’t enough. Often the only adjective that can give accurate measure and weight to the value of a thing is the thing itself. The The. A plum plum. It’s a disappearance act and the ultimate exaltation at the same time. It means that the thing in-and-of-itself is sufficient. It’s brilliant in both Ondaatje’s and Stevens’ ways of usage. Later in the film, we go back in time, when Almásy meets the love of his life, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) during a Royal Geographical Society archeological and surveying expedition in Egypt and Libya. She arrives with her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth), both joining the exploration party for reasons undetermined at the time. Katherine’s introductory words with Almásy are slightly barbed. Katherine explains that she’s read Almásy’s monograph, and was intrigued, for one particular reason:

Katherine: “I wanted to meet a man who could write such a long paper with so few adjectives.”
Count Almásy: “A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it. Big car, slow car, chauffeur-driven car, still a car.”
Katherine: “Love? Romantic love, platonic love, filial love? Quite different things surely.”

Okay, so it’s a sort of meet-cute for academics and cinephiles. It establishes the stern Almásy and the romantic Katherine, each lighting their frictional fire in dialogue like two flint stones cracking sparks. In some degree, they’re both correct. An adjective is what it is to the beholder. That three-line conversation tells us two highly nuanced life philosophies without having to spend more than a minute or so of screen time. To watch this film is to feel the burning of language, both visually and audibly. Shadows, gradations and contours of endless sand-hills become the curves of a woman’s back. In the dance scene, from the still image above, we learn from Katherine that there’s a subtle difference between how she and Almásy view his behavior in the Cairo market:

Katherine: “After the market, you followed me to the hotel? … So why follow me? Escort me by all means. But following me is predatory, isn’t it?”

She’s teasing him with a coy invitation. Surely there’s a difference between being escorted and followed. It’s lovely-written dialogue. The audience is shown the complexity of life and love within the complexities of language. And it’s a language teetering on multiple meanings, caveats, smoke signals, contradictions, and weight. Katherine and Almásy argue over the word “obliged” when she offers him her sketching of the Cave of Swimmers. Almásy is both saint and sinner, devotee and adulterer, friend and traitor. The thief David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is no painter, but he is starkly realistic, and with good reason. The audience sees the horrifying value of definition, when an interrogator with a cutthroat razor asks Caravaggio, “Are thumbs fingers?” We know what will happen next. In “The English Patient”, to play an abandoned piano can mean unwittingly inviting one’s own death. The drawings in the dry-as-a-bone desert caves reveal what centuries earlier may have been an ocean. A minor trifle, like a thimble, crystallizes the mighty passion of an affair. A suprasternal notch becomes the geography of a lover. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Katherine and Almásy are momentarily trapped in a car as a sand storm sweeps over them like an ocean’s tide. Inside he talks about the myths of Herodotus’ “Histories”, and the types of sand storms given names by a variety of cultures. It is seduction by adjective, or more accurately, proper noun. The whistling wind and the pair’s trapped intimacy work in the background to the hushed names of the sandstorms in Almásy’s storytelling. The south Moroccan Aajej, the Tunisian Ghibli, the red Harmatton, the dangerous Simoon. The silty “s” of the latter and the breathy utterances of the former names are a talisman to a mutual game of seduction. The strange foreign words hold sensuality in their phonology.

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