The English Patient has one of the most memorable opening sequences – you see a shadow of an aircraft on the sand dunes of a vast desert, the camera slowly reveals a still, slightly sun-burnt face of a woman sitting in an open cockpit of a twin propellor aircraft with the wind blowing her scarf and her red hair. You don’t know what a beautiful woman like her is doing in that aircraft flying over a vast desert. As the story unfolds, you find out who the woman is, but the image of her in that aircraft keeps coming back to you and then comes a moment when you realize the purpose of it – and that moment stays with you long after the movie is over. The movie is filled with rich characters, sumptuous cinematography, crushing emotions, spirited performances and a background score to match the emotional high drama. The movie is almost lyrical, in a way it is like reading a book or listening to a symphony. There was a Seinfeld episode where Elaine and Jerry mock this movie – I smiled when I saw the episode – you know when Seinfeld makes fun of something, it’s earned its fame.
Minghella made “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” in later years- all adaptations of books. Minghella treated his characters with respect – you discover them one frame at a time, just like you would while turning pages in a book, gradually. The locations and backdrops of his movies formed an important part of the narrative – be it the Sahara desert in English Patient or Italy in Ripley or the North Carolina countryside in Cold Mountain. He captured the beauty of these places and made them integral with the story, never for once would the placement of the characters in a particular location seemed like a gimmick. The characters belong there. There is a clear purpose to their being in that precise place at that precise time.
Examples – The heartbreaking scene of Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) character dying in a dark cave all by herself, the scene between Hana the nurse (Juliette Binoche) and Kip (Naveen Andrews), the Indian Soldier in a dilapidated church in the Italian countryside.
It’s easy to dismiss it by saying that the novel already had these scenes written for him. However, it’s quite easy to get carried away with the visual representation of the written word. Minghella’s focus never deviated from the soul of the characters, he understood their bearings and their pulse, and he gave shape to them and brought them to life. This is what made him a great director when it comes to adapting books to movies. He will be missed.