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The English Patient (Best Picture, 1996)

What a truly extraordinary cast.  Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, of course, but also Colin Firth turning in a wonderful performance of the jealous, betrayed husband, Willem Dafoe as the bitter, revenge-driven Caravaggio, Juliette Binoche as the loving, heartbroken nurse Hana, and the passionate, kind Kip, played by Naveen Andrews.

To be perfectly honest, I like the cast better than the primary story.  The secondary story, that of Hana the French-Canadian army nurse, is far more compelling.  In the first half-hour of the film, she loses her fiancee and her best friend, so it’s not so surprising that she believes she’s cursed.  Anyone who gets close to her, she says, dies.  Thus her romance with the Sikh sapper Kip is touching in its fragility.  Kip has a simplicity to him that is somehow spiritual without being religious – he is a balm to Hana’s wounded spirit.  When he in turn needs healing, it’s much harder to let her in to help.  Classic, perhaps, but no less real.

I’m not sure why it is that the primary romance, the illicit affair of Ralph Fiennes’ Count Almasy and Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katherine Clifton, is less compelling.  Perhaps it’s that I don’t really see Fiennes as a romantic lead.  Passionate, certainly, but their affair is one that is destined to end in flames from the getgo.  Fiennes’ passion is the kind that will consume itself in fire.  I’d love to see him take a role as one of the great religious fanatics of history.  I think he’d be overpoweringly brilliant at portraying such fervor.  Torquemada, perhaps, or the fire-and-brimstone priest Savonarola, whose preaching led Florentine Renaissance artists like Sandro Botticelli to throw their own work onto bonfires and the Medicis themselves to despair.

It’s interesting to compare THE ENGLISH PATIENT to BRAVEHEART.  Probably not a comparison that comes up much, but it’s a point worth making.  There’s a lot of uproar still about the historical inaccuracies of BRAVEHEART, but seemingly none at all about those in THE ENGLISH PATIENT.  Both are based on literary renditions of real historical people and events.  BRAVEHEART is national mythology.  The film is based largely on a poem by late-medieval Scottish poet “Blind Harry,” who even wrote for the Scottish court at times.  It’s no surprise that it should be vigorously patriotic rather than concerned with historical accuracy.  THE ENGLISH PATIENT is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, but it’s important to point out that Count Laszlo Almasy was a real person, the Cave of the Swimmers is a real place explored in the 1930s.  Laszlo Almasy, by the way, was homosexual and died in the 1950s of amoebic dysentery.

Maybe the difference is quite simple.  THE ENGLISH PATIENT includes a note in its credits, that some characters and places are based on real people and places, but that the film is very definitely a work of fiction and ought to be treated as such.  As far as I could tell, BRAVEHEART included no such note.  BRAVEHEART, of course, deals with the subject of Scottish independence, which is still an explosive issue to this day.  Feelings were always going to run high about that film.

Or maybe it’s just that more people know about William Wallace and Edward I than about Count Laszlo Almasy, the relatively obscure Hungarian explorer and pilot.

Titanic (Best Picture, 1997)

Oh dear lord I cannot believe I am actually voluntarily watching this stupid movie again. That thudding sound you hear is me gently bumping my head against the wall to drown out the melodrama of “I’ll never let go, Jack” *immediately lets go.*

Just have to keep reminding myself that while James Cameron is still an arrogant jackass, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have proved to be two of the most gifted actors of their generation.

TITANIC holds the dubious distinction of being the first Best Picture winner that I actually saw in the theaters before it won Best Picture. Somehow I got dragged to it twice, in fact, and I absolutely hated it both times.  To be fair, it’s possible that some of my distaste stems from the fact that cinemas always have the volume up way too high, and I felt assaulted by the sound level. But it’s also that I was eleven years old and still more child than teenager.  I hadn’t had a crush yet.  I didn’t understand why my peers spent hours drooling over “Leo,” as they called him.

I thought the story was campy, the acting marginal, and though I enjoyed the costumes and the sets, I just plain didn’t see what all the fuss was about.  If I’m to watch something about the RMS Titanic, I’d vote for the recent Discovery show analysis for the show “Curiosity” in which firsthand accounts of the ship’s sinking merge with modern engineering and structural analysis to explain why the events progressed as they did.

And even though I recognize Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the most gifted actors of the current generation, even though he exemplifies the “chameleon” category I’ve described before in terms of Meryl Streep and Ben Kingsley, I still can’t stand the way he speaks.  Somehow the vowels are too flat and he hits the letter “r” too hard.  It sounds fake, like a British person putting on an American accent.  Kate Winslet sounds more convincingly American and she IS English.

THAT SAID.  I will acknowledge that TITANIC is a remarkable cinematographic achievement.  It is opulent and extravagant, but then, so was the TITANIC herself.  The premise of the story is an interesting one, I just am not really a fan of how it was presented.  And I do enjoy the bits at the beginning with the submersible exploring the wreck of the ship on the ocean floor. Wish there’d been more of that.

Next Up: Shakespeare In Love (Best Picture, 1998) and American Beauty (Best Picture, 1999)