Discursive Practices

Critical commentary for The English Patient is extensive. It is the sort of film that invites criticism, interpretation, and commentary: indeed, that is one of its selling points. It is an engaging film fundamentally, and left many critics grappling with its deeper meanings. This is not to suggest that all criticism was uniformly constructive, or even positive; on the contrary, despite the heavy intertextual relay from commercial sources, some critics took an antithetical reading of the film. However, even the most dismissive interpretations were based on critical expectations, and involved information based on the film's intertextual implications.

As an example, reviewer Betsy Pickle of the Knoxville News-Sentinel did not like the film at all. Her scathing review of it bordered on revulsion at times. But this review is prefaced with, 'Every decade has its clock-stopping, lavish epic of all-consuming passion set against a world of conflict and intrigue. If The English Patient is supposed to be that film for the 1990s, we're in trouble.' (1) Clearly, her expectation of the film was grandiose to say the least. The manner in which the intertextual relay affected Pickle was that it linked in her mind The English Patient with the 'lavish epics' of past decades to which she refers. She had a very clear generic construct in mind (reinforced by the fact that she mentioned no specific epics), brought about by the pre-film intertext, but it was one against which she felt the film could not stand. Her argument as it relates to intertextuality is that The English Patient did itself in by defining itself too early as the potential 'love story of the decade.' Consider her statement, 'Dust, grit, and sand all figure into the story, but [director Anthony] Minghella should keep them in their place. Likening sand dunes to the curves of a woman's body ought not to be a film's sensual high point.' It is obvious that Pickle does not mean 'a film,' but rather, 'this film;' in other words, she would not have made this statement about any of the other films of the season. She felt that this film needed stronger sensual high points, because this film was supposed to be the 'lavish epic of all-consuming passion...for the 1990s.' What was for other critics an emotional apex was for her a deep disappointment; her assimilation of the intertext somewhat handicapped her expectations.

This of course begs the question as to whether or not it is possible to watch a popular film without handicaps. Judging by the balance of the critical commentary, it is not, as each successive critic relied in some way on pre-existing intertextual relay in formulating a review. Take as an example Roger Ebert's review for the Chicago Sun-Times. He writes,

Backward into memory, forward into loss and desire, The English Patient searches for answers that will answer nothing. This poetic, evocative film version of the famous novel by Michael Ondaatje circles down through layers of mystery until all the puzzles in the story have been solved, and only the great wound of a doomed love remains. It is the kind of movie you can see twice -- first for the questions, the second time for the answers. (2)


Compare this with Miramax's electronic press release:
Based on Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel, [...] The English Patient is an epic film of adventure, intrigue, betrayal and love... [...] As tales of the past and present unfold, the characters reveal themselves to one another and two love stories emerge. [...] (3)
Note the shared themes and keywords in the two: both mention the novel, its author, and the fact that it is famous; both dwell on the enigmatic, mysterious content of the story; both highlight the past/ present dichotomy; both read the love story as being wounded or betrayed. This is a case of aggressive intertextual feedback: the critic nearly echoes the sentiments of the press release!

Ebert and in fact most all of the critics are unsure of how exactly to place the novel in their commentary. It is a delicate topic for them, it seems, and not one that bears a lot of explication. Ebert states,


Ondaatje's novel has become one of the most widely-read and loved of recent years. Some of its readers may be disappointed that more is not made of the Andrews character [Kip]; the love between the Sikh and the nurse could provide a balance to the do omed loves elsewhere.
Were this any other film, and any other novel, the critics would have probably destroyed the film at this point. In the novel, only a tiny portion of time is spent dealing with the memories of the English patient, particularly with his affair with Katharine Clifton. The bulk of the novel relates the present-day story about Hana, Caravaggio, Almasy, and Kip; the film all but ignores this portion of the novel as inconsequential. In other words, the film maintains a completely different focus from the novel, and serious critics who have read and intend on incorporating the novel should not allow such a matter to go unnoticed. However, Ebert summarises the position of all such potential critics when he states,


But the novel is so labyrinthine that it's a miracle it was filmed at all, and the writer-director, Anthony Minghella, has done a creative job of finding visual ways to show how the rich language slowly unveils layers of the past.
Instead of chastising the writer-director for shifting the focus and thereby perhaps the meaning of the novel, Ebert celebrates the fact that The English Patient even exists. This relates directly to the earlier point that the film would garner the praise of the novel so long as it was even an attempt at a faithful adaptation. The film touched the novel just enough so that the two could revel in the same compliments.

And revel the film did, for critical judgements upon it were overall quite benevolent. Of the more than twenty-five reviews I read, at least ninety percent were favourable. The film ranked a hefty 8.7 out of ten at the Internet Movie Database (which employs a system wherein anyone may vote on the ranking for a film; at the time of this report, 2866 votes had been cast). The film gathered nine Oscars and a Golden Globe as well. As a result, the novel has leapt back into the best-seller lists, and is selling as well as ever, sporting on its front cover one of the two official movie posters. The intertextual interplay here is palpable.

In all, the critical judgements of the film followed suit from the commercially processed intertextual relays. Reviewers enjoyed the film for its artistry, its fractured love story, its mystery. Most importantly, they were willing to forgive the film's departure from the novel, because the commercial intertext asked them to. And when the film was dismissed or insulted, it was only in relation to the critic's media-induced expectations. These phenomena can be better explored by examining a particular group of spectators' lived cinematic experiences. How did people actually watch the film, and how did intertextuality and generic construction influence their viewing? To answer these questions, I will relate my own experience.

(1) Pickle, Betsy. 'The English Patient.' The Knoxville News-Sentinel, (c) 1997

 (2) Ebert, Roger. 'The English Patient.' The Chicago Sun-Times, (c) 1996

 (3) The Miramax Official Site, (c) 1997


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