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The English Patient

"The English Patient" on DVD

Special Edition not very special

By Jim Bray

Winner of 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress, The English Patient is a long, lush film set before and during World War II. Based on the novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, it’s a movie the traditional Canadian media and elite like to tout as important, possibly because it concentrates on being arty, preachy, politically correct, and self-important rather than on telling a ripping good yarn.

Oh, there are a few nice (but all too brief) flying scenes, the performances are all first rate (especially the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas), and the production values are as befits epic films, but I was left longing for the ordeal to end long before it actually did.

A typically Canadian type of story (I’m surprised it didn’t debut as a CBC telefilm), this is a war film that isn’t about war, it’s about people and relationships. Which isn't necessarily bad, but The English Patient makes the cardinal mistake of so many Canadian stories: it’s boring! The audience has to sit through 162 minutes that consist mostly of finding out into which bed (and when) the female protagonists are going to land, while the storyline of ‘dangerous secrets’ and intrigue gets almost lost in the process.

Will Binoche’s nurse hop on top of the burned patient and let his life end with a bang, will she end up in a tryst with the mysterious Willem Dafoe, or seek solace in the arms of the Sikh officer whose more dangerous liaisons are with enemy bombs and mines?

Will the lady Katherine get caught in her own dangerous liaison with Fiennes’ mysterious character? If so, will she lose her husband, get shot by him, or face any sort of consequences for her infidelity?

War is hell, alright, but here – except for a few brief moments – the hell is mostly elsewhere, unless you consider who’s boffing whom to be the most hellish question of the day.

To paraphrase a line from a much better wartime-set movie, "The problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Yet The English Patient concentrates almost exclusively on the hill of beans, and very little on the crazy world.

Fair enough, I suppose, an author can focus his pen on whatever subject he pleases – and so can a director. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get overly interested in that hill of beans, despite the strong characters and performances. The fact that The English Patient copped nine Oscars seems to me more of a testament to a lousy crop of films that year than an outstanding achievement by its makers.

So how’s the disc? Not surprisingly, the DVD release makes The English Patient look beautiful. It's only offered in widescreen, which suits us just fine, and the picture is as good as we’ve come to expect from the format. Audio quality, too, is excellent.

Unfortunately, I had some problems with this particular DVD, the chief one of which is that, on a format that allows 133 minutes per side, Alliance video has bizarrely chosen to spread the movie over two disc sides – just as if it were a laserdisc. Now, to be fair, a 162 minute movie would take three sides on LD, but thanks to the dual layer technology used on DVD releases like "Contact," you can get the whole shebang on one side of the disc and make the laser’s transition from layer to layer virtually seamless.

I have no idea why Alliance chose to split the movie over two sides, but it flies in the face of a major reason to embrace the DVD format in the first place: its extra storage space that makes all but the very longest movies accessible with no breaks in the action.

The bilingual packaging (one side English, one side French – typically Canadian) trumpets that The English Patient is a "Collector’s Edition" DVD. Yet collector’s editions generally include extra stuff, like filmmakers’ commentaries, extra scenes, outtakes, production information, theatrical trailers, etc.

Not here. You get nothing; the menu offers you the choice of English or French language, closed captioning, and chapter stops. You don’t even get substantial liner notes – and what you do get is only half as long as it could be because it has to be duplicated in Canada’s other official language and that takes up half the space.

Sorry, Alliance. This just doesn’t cut it as a special edition DVD – and it’s a pretty chintzy package for a regular DVD (especially the silliness of having to change sides!). Nice try, but no cigar.

The English Patient

From Miramax films via Alliance Home Video


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Updated May 13, 2006