Broad Cinema: Mapping The Human Heart In THE ENGLISH PATIENT
From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For June we are celebrating casting director Michelle Guish. Live near an Alamo Drafthouse? Get tickets to this month's The English Patient Afternoon Tea here!
“Romantic love, platonic love, filial love – quite different things, surely?” Add erotic love, manic love and self-love to this list with which Katharine Clifton teases Count László Almásy regarding his aversion to adjectives when first they meet, and the map of the characters in Anthony Minghella’s 1996 The English Patient is complete.
Against a backdrop of the conclusion of the North African and Italian campaigns towards the end of World War II, the mysterious Patient of the title gradually tells the story of a love affair started amongst the shifting sands of the Sahara, drifting in a morphine haze between past and present as he lies burnt and dying in a bombed-out monastery, devoted nurse Hana, wise sapper Kip and vengeful spy Caravaggio the only witnesses to his tale.
It starts when Katharine Clifton and her husband Geoffrey join Almásy’s Royal Geographical Society mapping expedition in the desert. She is romantic love, drawn to desert mythology, exploration and discovery, and as she tells the story of a beautiful queen betrayed by her husband from Herodotus’ Histories around the campfire, Almásy falls for her, writing about his new obsession in the journal he keeps tucked inside his own copy of Herodotus.
Almásy is erotic love, impulsive desire inflamed by Katharine’s voice piercing his stoic demeanour even as he fearfully attempts to keep his distance and resist his yearning. She reads his notes and surrenders to a passion her husband can seemingly neither provide nor inspire and, much as he explores and maps the desert in search of new routes and treasures, Almásy explores and maps her body, laying claim to its contours and pleasures as his own.
The cuckold Geoffrey is manic love, proclaiming to the world his devotion to a woman he has known since childhood and has finally persuaded to marry him, yet for whom he is seemingly a less than ideal match, his gaucheness and bluster at odds with Katharine’s erudition and poise. His urge for the grand gesture proves his undoing when he discovers her affair with Almásy while planning an anniversary surprise, the paper hearts he has made for her mocking him as he plots desperate revenge.
It is that revenge which ultimately Almásy burns beyond recognition, for he is the Patient in Hana’s care. She is platonic love, adoring the fiery intellect within the charred body she chastely knows so intimately, relieved by the inevitability of Almásy’s impending death of all responsibility for his fate as she grapples with her conviction that those she loves are doomed to die.
And yet she takes Kip as a lover. He is filial love, their affair that of people pushed together in times of war clinging to each other for support in the face of death and inhumanity, more brother and sister than romantic partners, their coupling innocent and naive. A wider expression of his Sikhism, Kip’s filial love extends to the brothers-in-arms he barely knows as people, yet for whom he selflessly risks his life.
Caravaggio is anything but selfless: he is self-love, but broken by the Nazis who mutilated him. Physically and spiritually incomplete, his only purpose now, the only thing which can restore that love, is to exact revenge: first on the man who took his thumbs, then the one who took his picture, then the one who took the photographer across the desert, the man he suspects of murdering Katharine and Geoffrey: Almásy.
Putting faces and bodies to these precisely delineated characters was the task of Michelle Guish, rekindling the working relationship with Anthony Minghella which first found success in his directorial debut, Truly, Madly, Deeply. The casting director embodies almost every kind of love as she matchmakes the delicate collaborations of filmmaking, but most important among them is her selfless love for the actors, characters, and directors she works with in assembling a cast so ideally matched for their roles that it becomes impossible to imagine them played by any other.
Minghella said of the casting process that all options seem plausible at the time but absurd after the fact, there being some alchemical inexorability in the insistence of the casting itself on being right for the story being told, and in finding actors to perfectly fit these roles Michelle Guish assembled a cast of rare strength for The English Patient which is inseparable from both the film and its characters.
Thus Willem Dafoe plays Caravaggio, his distinctive easy charm and ability to turn it into urgent threat at a moment’s notice meshing seamlessly with the spy’s sly duplicity and hidden agenda, his lithe frame believably the result of morphine addiction. To watch Caravaggio plead at the hands of his Nazi torturers is almost unbearable, and Dafoe carries the anguish of that moment in seething anger that lies just below the surface until it all leaks away in the morning light.
Dignity and empathy are the keystones of Naveen Andrews’ performance as Kip, one utterly unlike the caricatured Indians more usually seen in period films of Empire, conveying all the weight of the world he carries on his shoulders yet still playful and open, delighting in lifting Hana both physically and spiritually even as he meets the violence of war with stoic resignation.
Juliette Binoche was cast as Hana even before the script was written, Minghella tweaking the character from Canadian to French-Canadian to better suit her accent. The film’s editor Walter Murch claims Binoche’s emotional states are acted in minute shifts in the colour of her face, and so finely calibrated is her performance as Hana that it’s tempting to believe him as she accesses naturalistic grief and joy in equal measure, the beating heart of a film which gradually hardens Hana to life’s injustices. Binoche’s performance won both the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the Silver Bear for Best Actress.
Geoffrey’s matey affability mixed with schoolboy enthusiasm is tempered by the brittle fragility Colin Firth brings to the part, and at the film’s centre is a scene in which, without dialogue or indeed anyone to act against, he slowly peels away the buffoonery to reveal a heart as it breaks, bringing hitherto unseen gravitas to Geoffrey and earnestly commanding sympathy.
There’s a delightful logic to casting an actual aristocrat as a fictional Count, and Ralph Fiennes’ fierce intellect and wit are given full rein in his dual roles: the cold, capable Almásy who slowly opens himself to Katharine, and the warm, immobile Patient into whom she has been burned. Playing one half of the film under extensive prosthetics which leave him little more than an eye and his voice with which to convey emotion, the other at his dashing finest, Fiennes creates two distinct but recognisable versions of the same character, expertly navigating the terrain of Almásy’s emotional journey to its devastating conclusion, and his work was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes.
Katharine is a very particular kind of Englishwoman: fruity and educated, flirtatious and sophisticated, unabashedly active and passionate, yet practical and pragmatic. Kristin Scott Thomas brought all of this to the role even after a disastrous early meeting with Minghella, a subsequent heartfelt note in which she insisted “I am K in your film” securing a place on the castlist no subsequent hopeful could usurp even in the face of studio pressure to cast a bigger name. At one with the period setting, Scott Thomas’ every look, gesture and line reading adds subtle shading to the dialogue as she navigates Katharine’s attraction, infatuation, rejection and passionate admission with finely-pitched tension, earning nominations for the Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes in the Best Actress category.
An epic love story played out against an epic landscape, it’s the intimate moments of The English Patient which resonate most powerfully: stolen glances, stroked hair, washed bodies, torn clothes, declarations of love in a desert canyon and lamentations of death in a painted cave.
With his story told, Almásy asks Hana to perform one last act of love by granting him release, and as a last, lethal dose of morphine courses through his veins, she reads to him from Katharine’s final letter: “We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you will come and carry me out into the palace of winds, the rumours of water. That's all I've wanted – to walk in such a place with you, with friends, on earth without maps.”
And as he dies, Almásy is with Katharine once again, their love immutable as they fly over the desert sands and into the heavens.