The English Patient, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a romantic, melodramatic
film which defines the art of cinematography. The internal and external rhythms,
lighting, camera angles, lenses, music, dialogue, and editing are displayed in a way which
conveys the meanings and themes to the viewer in such a clear and efficient manner.
Due to this fine exhibition, it is of the belief that film schools should use this piece of
artwork as a guide to students who wish to learn what cinematography actually is. So
poetically did this phenomenal cast tell the story based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel, that
after each viewing , a greater love, understanding, respect and admiration arose without
any signs of boredom.
One of the numerous themes of The English Patient is the troubles, hardships and
ever lasting negative emotions that war causes. It tells us that: even if one is lucky
enough to escape the war without physical wounds, emotionally there is no escaping its
impact. All of the main characters undergo some sort of pain as a result of the war
between the Axis and Ally forces. The protagonist, Count Laszlo Almasy, a Hungarian
cartographer, perhaps has been struck the hardest of any. Almasy is rescued from his
plane after it is shot down and is soon mistaken for an English soldier. However, his
troubles continue as his body is burnt from head to toe leaving the majority of his body
immobile. Almasy is dependent on heavy doses of morphine in order to temporarily
relieve him of the excruciating pain that he suffers from. Also, if that isn’t enough,
Almasy fails to save the life of Katherine Clifton, a woman who he loves so dearly.
Hana, the British nurse caring for Almasy, fortunately gets through the war without any
physical damage. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the emotional impact that she
suffers from. At times, the pain is so severe that Hana wishes death upon herself. The
diligent Nurse feels as if everyone she has ever loved eventually leaves her. Hana has the
horrifying experience of seeing through her very own eyes the death of her companion
Jenny during an automobile explosion. In addition, Hana’s job requires her to care for
war wounded, dying patients who rely on solely hope to survive. Hana sheds some light
on the situation when she meets, and perhaps falls in love with, the intellectual Indian
bomb specialist, Kip. However, as the war moves on and nears its end, Kip must transfer
positions leaving Hana alone with only Almasy and Caravaggio. This sudden departure
is just one of the several disappointments Hana faces. Minghella outlines this negative
theme throughout the film by displaying numerous tragedies.
There exists a parallel between this film and Enrique Maria Remarque’s All Quiet
on the Western Front as both show the horrors of war. However, differences lie in the
fact that Remarque’s novel took place during World War I and was a factual retelling. On
the other hand, The English Patient was based on a novel that set during World War II. It
is of the opinion that although The English Patient is a fictitious piece of work, the style
in which it was filmed made the viewers feel that it was as real if not more realistic than
Remarque’s novel/movie. This was accomplished with the remarkable cinematography
involved in the making of this film.
Another theme of the film is that of love and romance. These two themes are
repeatedly brought out by the actions of the characters. The most illustrious example of
this lies in the relationship between Count Laszlo Almasy and Katherine Clifton. Almasy
first encounters Clifton, in the desert where they flirtatiously argue about the use of
adjectives in literature. Almasy later sees Mrs. Clifton in an outdoor market in Cairo
where Almasy shows his affection towards her for the first time. These feelings are
become evident through their powerful dialogue. Later, Clifton confronts Almasy about
him following her home after leaving the market during a slow dancing at a formal affair.
The married Clifton, at first reluctant to have any sexual relationship with Almasy, later
finds herself unable to resist temptation and soon falls in love with the obsessed Almasy.
The handsome Almasy shows his love towards Clifton in many ways including walking
for days across the deserts of Cairo hoping to find a doctor who can save the wounded
Clifton. The film extrapolates on their relationship by showing numerous sexual
interactions between the two. The love scenes displayed are intense and intellectual
rather than explicit. This was done in order to allow the entire audience to benefit from
its beauty rather than be offended.
Perhaps the most dramatic of these scenes takes place on Christmas in Cairo in
the courtyard of the British Embassy. This scene was extremely significant, and perhaps
even climatic, as we see Almasy and Katherine Clifton passionately sexually interact for
the second time. The scene commences when the screen shows the British soldiers
sitting at a long table in an open courtyard. Katherine walks over to a window on one of
the walls. This window isn’t made of glass, but rather possesses metal bars. Inside the
Embassy, on the other side of the window is Count Almasy. The camera pans as
Katherine walks over to the window at which point Almasy tells Katherine of his plan to
get her alone. The camera cuts back and forth between the two. At this point, a telephoto
lens is used to concentrate the viewers’ attention on Katherine and Almasy and their
dialogue rather than on the background events taking place. Music from an orquestra is
heard. The music is soft and displays a happy theme as the soldiers celebrate the
birthday of Jesus Christ The bars on the window are also extremely significant as they
are representative of a force keeping Katherine and Almasy away from each other.
Almasy stands behind the window with a shadow casted on his head from metal bars.
The bars, running perpendicular to each other, cast a shadow in the shape of a cross. An
ironic twist comes as a result of many things. First, there are two Christians planning to
commit adultery. This is both a crime and sin in the Christian religion. It is also ironic
that it is the holiest of holidays, Christmas. Next, there is an appearance of a cross on the
head of Almasy. Along with the separation of the two by the window, these other factors
are attempting to hint to them not to go through with their plan.
The cutting rhythm of this scene is quite dynamic. After we see the shadow on
Almasy’s face, the camera cuts numerous times in a quick manner and displays the faces
of numerous characters. The camera pans as Katherine walks back to her original
position before going to the window. At this point she is located around the upper left to
upper middle portion of the screen. The only lighting observed is the key lighting
coming from the sun. To the right of her is the table where the soldiers sit. They are
dressed in uniform, facing one another across the table as they prepare for a toast. In
unison, everyone in the room raises their glasses and chants Merry Christmas. At this
precise moment the camera is located at a high position directly above the courtyard,
tilting down. The downward tilt gives the feeling of being controlled, restricted, or even
spied upon. This adds to the suspense and drama of what is yet to come.
Immediately following the toast, Katherine begins to follow up the conspicuous
plan. Minghella uses on a normal lens for this shot. Both Katherine and her background
are in focus. Also, in view at this time is Count Almasy, still in his position behind the
bars of the window watching the acting Katherine. The window is shown at the middle of
the right third of the screen.
Katherine fakes an illness and then denies permission to an escort who offers to
take care of her. She meets up with Almasy in a doorway and walks behind him as they
hold hands and go into a back private room of the Embassy. The lighting in the doorway
is dark. At no time during this scene is there any artificial lighting. The sound heard at
this time is of people talking as they congregate just outside of where the two are
interacting. The viewers see a close up of the Katherine and Almasy through a telephoto
lens when Almasy begins to undress Katherine Clifton. A beautiful cutting rhythm is
incorporated as the camera swiftly moves from the face of Katherine to the face of
Almasy back to the face and body of Katherine and then a shot of both of their faces.
When shown, the heads of the characters dominate the entire screen and little
background in visible. To add irony to the situation, the song Silent Night has sounded
during their interaction. This music starts precisely when Almasy puts his hand on the
dress and bra strap of Katherine and gets louder as they proceed to undress and climaxes
as they are having sex. In addition to Silent Night we also hear echoes coming from an
orquestra. Katherine and Almasy contradict the lyrics of the Christmas carol. The
emphasis here reinforces the fact that it is Christmas and they are committing a severe
As the scene progresses, there is a zoom in on the neck of Katherine. The camera
focuses on the neck of Katherine. It is specifically on the sensitive section right above the
collar bone. This shot foreshadows a later remark made by Almasy during a sequence
when he and Katherine make love and Almasy states: I claim this for me. The other
object which is in extreme focus and is zoomed in on is Katherine’s pearl necklace. The
pearl necklace, which is a valuable accessory and could also be used as a term which
contains sexual reference, is representative of Katherine’s marriage to Geoffrey Clifton,
her current husband. The off white color of the pearls suggests innocence, a
characteristic which Katherine obviously contrasts.
The shot cuts to show the man playing the bag pipes. The musician is located on
the left half of the screen leaving the right side displaying a window characterized by
smoked glass. Through this window, we are able to see shadows of Almasy and Clifton
making love. The music reaches its climax in terms of intensity and loudness at this
point and the suspense also reaches a maximum.
The scene cuts to Katherine one final time and her head is dominating the entire
screen from left to right. The sound of Silent Night fades out and the scene cuts back
to the courtyard where the soldiers are sitting. The camera at this point is where it was
for the original toast, high above, tilting down. The scene ends with the soldiers raising
there glasses for another toast. The toast shows satire as it appears as if they are
drinking to the fact that Katherine and Almasy just finished their lovemaking when they
are actually making a toast with regard to the war or holiday.
The English Patient utilizes all aspects of cinematography so brilliantly which is
why there is such a tremendous amount of meaning. The dialogue is so deep and
significant that every line should be carefully listened to and thought about. Although the
dialogue was limited in my scene, the sound of Silent Night and the music from the
orquestra played a significant role in determining the scene’s meaning.
All of the rest of technicalities of the scene are consistent with the rest of the film.
In the scene, along with the rest of the film, there is no artificial lighting. Most of the key
lighting came from the sun or the moon. For scenes inside, either light came through
windows or certain objects that were used on the set gave light. For example if a
character utilized a flashlight, that would provide the source of light. Other examples
include light from bonfires and lanterns. The type of camera lens which dominated my
scene and most of the film was a telephoto lens. The telephoto lens is characterized by a
shallow depth of field. Given that, only the close objects are in focus while the
background images are blurred. Minghella’s use of a telephoto lens time and time again
during climatic points also highlights and emphasizes the two themes mentioned above. I
feel it is also necessarily to complement the superb job on the costumes and makeup. It
added a sense a realism in an extraordinary amount. Lastly, the cutting rhythm during my
scene and the entire film were similar. Although sometimes slow, often times they were
quick creating a sense of realism and suspense which made the viewer want to watch on.
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