Films this good don't come along very often - The English Patient is one to savour. Unusual Fact #1: It's a true epic, dwarfing most of the year's other productions in terms of scale and - more importantly - ambition (yet it cost a "mere" $31 million). Unusual Fact #2: Despite being based on a Booker Award-winning novel by a Canadian, and financed by American producer Zaentz, it's clipped-consonant-British in every way that counts (director, screenwriter, characters, actors, crew), yet it's neither a grainy, small-scale Channel Four offering nor a traditional costume drama. Unusual Fact #3: While other films consolidate the popularity of new actors and actresses, this one has coughed up a genuine, old-fashioned movie star in Kristin Scott Thomas n. Unusual Fact #4: It's brilliant. Not just "capable", or "entertaining", but film- making that borders on genius.
You think we gush? Well, perhaps, but see it and you'll understand why. Yes, the film has its flaws - some of the pretty nurse/dying patient scenes of the extended framing sequence drag a bit (but only because you're so keen to get back to the "main" pre-war story), and the film's jigsaw-puzzle design is a little over-elaborate. But these are churlish quibbles. Much of the joy The English Patient generates is down to the fact that here - for once - is a story that's both adult and exciting. It's grown-up cinema, but not once dour or depressing or po-faced - instead, Patient is smart, witty, sweeping and sad (in the true, pre-derogatory sense of the word). Next to it, most releases look pea-brained.
In a film packed with career-best achievement, the most fulsome praise must go to writer-director Anthony Minghella. He's never come across as a David Lean type before - originally a playwright, his first film (the promising chamber piece Truly, Madly, Deeply) took place in a terraced house. Yet here he juggles characters, continents, time zones and even action sequences like he's been doing it all his life. Minghella is at ease with his cast and all but faultless with his story, adding fine new scenes to illuminate what everyone had dismissed as an unfilmable novel. Certain set-piece moments stay with you for days - the perspiration-palmed bomb-under-the-bridge bit, the sandstorm sequence, and the squirmiest torture scene since Michael Madsen's stab at aural surgery.
But perhaps The English Patient's greatest achievement is that it makes a potentially disorientating non-linear narrative easy-peasy to follow and understand. In Tuscany, Kip helps pretty nurse Hana get over her sense of loss and dislocation; in North Africa, cold Count Almasy risks all in his mad, dangerous love for the lovely Katharine. Each story effortlessly illuminates the other. Miscasting or plain crap acting often makes you wonder what on-screen lovers see in each other - here you can see the passion and feel the lust, and comprehend why everyone's behaving so recklessly. If you hate love stories, it's because you've never seen a good one.
What else is there to say? The English Patient looks just great; its loving cinematography is beautiful; Fiennes wears his khaki strides like a bona fide leading man; Binoche, Andrews and Dafoe make for pleasing support; and Kristin Scott Thomas is the most desirable woman on the planet. Above all, it's with brains and heart that this remarkable film really scores. Headbanging action-movie obsessives should stay away, but the rest of the human race should make The English Patient a priority. It's an unutterably great movie, a Christmas TV future classic.