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Written by Timothy Sexton
Count László Almásy
Ralph Fiennes had burst onto the scene with his powerful Oscar-nominated performance Nazi villain Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List just three before the release of The English Patient. By the time he earned an Best Actor nomination for playing Count Almásy affirmed his status as one of the most versatile actors of the day as neither character looks, sounds or behaves like the other. If Fiennes needed another powerful performance to prove his astonishing turn as Goeth was not the work of a one-trick pony, The English Patient certainly did the trick.
Kristin Scott Thomas
Prior to being cast in The English Patient, Kristin Scott Thomas was primarily known for two things: being badly directed by Prince in a bad Prince movie and breaking out of the crowded field to make an impact in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The odds of her snatching the tragic role of Katherine seemed slight when it became known that Demi Moore—then the highest paid female start in Hollywood—desperately wanted the part. Fortunately for all concerned, The English Patient turned out to be one of those rare instances were artistic sensibilities were placed above crass commercial principles.
Juliette Binoche won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in The English Patient. While there is little room for argument over whether Binoche deserved the Academy Award based on the merit of portrayal, one might quibble over whether she should not, in fact, have been nominated and won Best Actress. The narrative is, of course, the tale of illicit love between Almasy and Katherine, but a very strong argument can be forwarded that Hana is the central character of the film.
Dafoe brings the perfect mixture of mysterious menace mingled with the potential for redemptive compassion to the shadowy role of Caravaggio. It is the very model of a role that can sink a film if miscast. Just how close to being woefully miscast this role might have come is anyone’s guess, but the names that routinely pop up as having had a shot are enough to send shivers down the back and stimulate effusive notes of thanks to Willem Dafoe: Sean Connery, Bruce Willis and Danny DeVito are among the most ridiculous possibilities while Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman at least offer potential for a fascinating trip down a much different road.
Andrews had appeared in less than half a dozen films when he was cast in the pivotal role of Kip. Kip plays a much more substantial role in the book upon which the film is based. What is perhaps most telling about the level of acting by Naveen Andrews in the movie adaptation is that—like Binoche’s performance as Hana—his presence resonates across even those scenes in which Kip is not on screen.
The English Patient represents perhaps the high point of the subgenre of Colin Firth films in which he is destined to lose the girl to the star. One of the strengths of the film is that it is possible to understand why Katherine Clifton might not be so willing to leave the admittedly more glamorous Count in order to stick with her husband. It’s not the character that makes that belief possible; it’s Firth.
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