By Coe, Jonathan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 126, No. 4324
The English Patient, Anthony Minghella's third film as director, has built up an irresistible momentum. With 12 Oscar and 13 Bafta nominations to its name, unanimously glowing American reviews and our own media in a frenzy well ahead of its release, this film is bound to stir up another bout of triumphalism about the British cinematic renaissance. Perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves one question, though: is it really a British film at all?
The leading players are British, that's for sure. The film is set in the closing stages of the second world war, with flash-backs to the 1930s. As the narrative seesaws between its two locations, North Africa and Tuscany, Ralph Fiennes appears by turns as a dapper explorer and a burnt-out, bedridden invalid, but remains throughout the epitome of the ruefully heroic Englishman (watch out for those national ironies, though: the character he plays turns out to be a Hungarian Count). As his doomed lover Katharine, Kristin Scott Thomas is - like the film itself - at once cerebral and passionate, all clipped vowels and brittle cheekbones. And yet the two main supporting players, Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews, hint at the project's internationalism. Its eminence grise, moreover, the veteran producer Saul Zaentz, was born in New Jersey of Russian-Polish parents, and of course the film is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Toronto.
Drawing all these disparate threads together is Minghella, both screenwriter and director. Despite his Italian ancestry and the finely sculpted beard and pate which give him a passing resemblance to Michelangelo, Minghella seems at first to be about as British as you could get.
He was brought up on the Isle of Wight and until 1981 lectured at Hull: his voice is still beautifully modulated, framing long, complex sentences like the best kind of university don. Throughout the 1980s he wrote for the theatre, picking up prizes for A Little Like Drowning and Made in Bangkok while quietly honing his skills as a screenwriter by turning out television films for Jim Henson Productions and working on several witty episodes of Inspector Morse. This apprenticeship he now reckons to have been invaluable: the only way to acquire an instinct for the "architecture" - favourite Minghella word - of screen narrative. ("If your architecture is secure, you can do anything, the audience will go anywhere with you. The boldest narrative devices work if they feel in safe hands.")
Then came Truly, Madly, Deeply in 1991, when Minghella was 37. Whimsical ghost story, sad comedy of bereavement and paean to Minghella's friendship with Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman, the film was too soft-centred for more cynical viewers (it was memorably trashed by Ian Hislop on BBC2's Room 101, rather to the chagrin of his studio audience). "I feel that no matter how much my head tried to intervene," Minghella says, apologetically, "I always seemed to be writing from lower down."
Still, it struck enough chords in enough hearts to win him a ticket to Hollywood, where he made an altogether more conventional romantic comedy, the Matt Dillon vehicle Mr Wonderful.
What Minghella found in Hollywood is not the expected story of endless interference and philistine studio heads, but something much more fundamental: the realisation that he was simply not at home with the vocabulary of American cinema. "Language in the American film is always used as a character device," he explains. "Characters always tell you what they're feeling and thinking and what they need, whereas I'd never come across that in life. I think it's often the failure to speak, the inability to say what we feel, which is intriguing."
A very British attitude; of course: and one that explains the power of Truly, Madly, Deeply's most enduring image, when Stevenson, completely unable to verbalise her grief, breaks down in her therapist's office and offers her tear-streaked, snot-soaked face to the camera for what seem to be endless minutes. …