To have loved, and lost

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes in the poster of The English Patient

I’ve always heard people talk about how it’s the journey that’s important, and not the destination. Having watched The English Patient for the very first time a few weeks ago, I was left with a certain sense of sadness, and maybe an ounce of regret. Sadness, because I found it hard to comprehend that when the time came, even my journey had to come to an end. Sadness, because I was unwilling to let go of this world – this world that I had so thoroughly invested myself in, so willingly allowed myself to be led into, so voluntarily and vulnerably permitted myself to be a part of – at times as a voyeur, at times as an admirer, and above all, as a lover.

I had taken it upon myself as a personal challenge to finish reading the Booker Prize winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, upon which the film was based. And I wanted to do soak myself in my own re-imagination of this tale of doomed romance, set in the backdrop of the Second World War, before I watched the late Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation for the big screen. What I realized was that how the experts had once prophesized that the novel was unfilmable, even I came to a premature conclusion that reviewing the film was an impossibility.  And I’ll tell you exactly why I came upon that realization.

A still from The English Patient

To start off with, I wasn’t an uninformed filmgoer – at least with respect to The English Patient. I had completed the book in a record time of a week – which I think is a personal best. And I remember how I had struggled with certain passages in the novel, which were too lyrical for my untrained mind. The works referenced in the novel consisted of everything from verses from Paradise Lost, to seminal accounts of desert exploration written by travelers who had long since succumbed to the ravages of time. I figured that in some ways, the entire book was an exercise in placing time on a see saw as the past and the present tipped back and forth in unspoken harmony.

I had ordered the book with the hope of getting it autographed by Michael Ondaatje, when I ran into him at the Jaipur Literary Fest this year. Alas, that dream was to be shattered by my indecisiveness, and to some extent, my sense of righteousness. I shall delve on that disappointment someday later when I look back at the year 2012 and remember it as the year when Michael Ondaatje came to India and I missed out on running into him and getting my copy of The English Patient signed by him. But, now, in the larger scheme of things, my loss could barely be equated to the heartache endured by the chief protagonist of the film, whose tale of love is unlike any you’ve read or seen before.

Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient

I shall certainly blog about the book someday in the future, after many more re-reading episodes. But for now, I shall focus on this film, which I discovered for the very first time this year. I don’t have to reiterate, but it has been one of my most longing-ridden, romantic and dreamy-eyed movie-watching experiences in a long, long time. It has arguably, the most enchanting opening credits sequence ever, if you consider love stories set in a specific period. It has gorgeous cinematography that bathes its wonderful and beautiful actors in some very moody set pieces.

Set in the backdrop of a foreboding landscape at a time when love might have been afforded the least priority, The English Patient is a languorous, unhurried journey in search of one man’s identity. I wouldn’t like to corrupt my readers with preemptive data on what the movie entails. But I’d surely tell them about a scene that makes this movie a must watch. Fear not, for it's not a spoiler and your experience of watching the film wouldn’t be diminished in the slightest manner by my revelations.

So let’s start off – right at the beginning. Early on in the film, we are introduced to Juliet Binoche, the magically talented French actress, who plays the unforgettable role of Hana, a war time nurse with a heart of gold. I must explain my bias towards the powerhouse of acting that is Binoche. I am completely in love with her to this day. She first broke my heart with her wrenching performance as a young woman forced to come to terms with the loss of her husband and daughter to a road accident in Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, the very first of the Three Colors trilogy.

Juliet Binoche in The English Patient

I had admired Juliet in Blue, being privy to the fact that she had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient. And I had vowed to myself that I’d watch her Oscar-winning movie someday. Thankfully the day came, almost after a decade. Now, the scene that I am referring to involves Juliet Binoche’s Hana kissing an injured English soldier as he lies on his berth. They’re both passengers in a train doubling up as a makeshift hospital that transports several hundred wounded infantrymen, just like him, to safety.

And it is during this journey that a young English soldier, barely in his 20s, but bedridden, requests Hana to give him a kiss. Although she has her doubts at first, her angelic heart melts when the boy tells her that it would mean so much to him if she kissed him. So she plants an almost maternal peck on the boy’s lips which he acknowledges with gratitude. Sure enough, Hana says he’s welcome and proceeds to walk towards the door at the end of the aisle. But that’s when the rest of the soldiers lying in the adjacent bunks begin to jovially chide her into giving them a kiss as well and tuck them in.  Hana, being the darling that she is, laughs off the requests saying, “Go back to sleep, all of ya.”

I think this one scene at the start of the film was worth the price of admission. It established Hana’s character and gave audiences someone they’d care about. Actually, if you’d consider the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, you’d realize that there isn’t a single actor who hasn’t gone beyond the call of duty to bring this motion picture to life. My heart bled for the duo and their star-crossed romance. I felt genuine pain at certain junctures in the film and I knew it was the work of a master filmmaker and his crew that had brought tears to my eyes as if on cue.

Kristin Scott Thomas in the poster of The English Patient

I’d also like to tip my hat to the legendary editor of this film – Walter Murch, who has in the past, been credited with such phenomenal films like the two Godfather sequels and Apocalypse Now. As a reader of the book The English Patient, I knew how challenging it was to keep pace with Michael Ondaatje’s ‘time and space’ warping literary style. And I couldn’t even imagine how hard it might have been for Walter to have edited this film, staying true to the vision of the author, the director and his own personal beliefs. I also am a big fan of Walter for his utter contempt for anything to do with 3D. Yeah, even he thinks it sucks.

Lastly, but in no way the least, I’d like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Anthony Minghella. I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the power of his images until some weeks back when I got to see The English Patient for the very first time. In retrospect, I realize how painfully formal and unobtrusive his technique was, in service of his story. Only after seeing his film did I realize, how inconspicuous his absence of directorial flourishes was. And I began to understand how daunting it might have been for him – to direct this movie and to steer clear of the temptation of showing off in the presence of such powerful material.

Anthony Minghella - 6 January 1954 – 18 March 2008

The classical filmmaking legacy of not calling attention to oneself or one’s work, as set in place by the true masters – directors, cinematographers, editors and technicians alike, was broken by the likes of new age auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and more. The latter spared no opportunity in exhibiting their so-called visionary chops as viewers lapped up every overblown frame rife with signature shots, impossible camera movements, obsessive dolly and tracking scenes and mind-bending editing setups.

But that’s where the repertoire of someone like Anthony Minghella comes in. He belonged to that elite task force of directors, who had dedicated their lives to upholding the values, ideals and vision of the true auteur of the work. He needs to be revered for sticking to his guns and his old-school armory, for not bending over backwards in search of directorial praise. He needs to be remembered for attempting to reinforce the fact that the director’s responsibility is to tell the story through the medium of film – nothing more, nothing less.

Anthony Minghella stayed true to Michael Ondaatje’s vision of The English Patient as I sat in wonderment of the journey that I’d just been on. And I thought to myself about that invisible force that held my hand and guided me through this dusty, lovelorn universe and even brought me to my destination before gently bidding goodbye in the most unassuming way. Having come so far, it’s the journey that I still yearn for and the opportunity to make that trip all over again - with Minghella hand-holding me through the dunes of his desert, amidst the disappearing sands of time that cradles the lovers into eternity and beyond.