I have an honest confession. I’ve never seen The English Patient until now. The film came during a time in childhood when I was watching films I was too young for. Films such as Pulp Fiction, Casino, and the casual mix of Eddie Murphy films took that attention away.
But in this context, I don’t consider it to be disadvantageous. What better way to be introduced to a clean-sweeping, Oscar-winning film than at a place that has become a fundamental institution of celebrating film with a live orchestra? The Royal Albert Hall is the place to be.
Part of the Films in Concert Series and the Royal Albert Hall’s Festival of Film 2018, the evening began with a twenty-five minute Q&A with the Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared. Interviewed by Neil Brand (I highly recommend watching his BBC4 show Sounds of Cinema: The Music That Made the Movies), his knowledgeable enthusiasm was on display, commenting on how multi-layered the score was (it was, but more on that later). Yared humbly responded with his insight on the process and even played the piano as a taste of what to expect.
The one statement that leaps to memory is how Yared “composed the spirit of the film and not shot by shot”. To a soundtrack aficionado, it’s a comment that will always touch the heart. Listening to some scores can be a passive and undistinguishable experience, rarely working beyond the movie. But there is a reason why composers like Zimmer and Williams have endured for many years. Their musical motifs are emotionally influenced, embedding itself as another functioning character. Their music doesn’t hold your hand and tell you how to feel at a particular moment. It’s up to the audience to articulate that response, and judging by Yared’s brief teaser this was going to be one of those occasions.
Yared’s love of The English Patient was instantly recognisable. Director Anthony Minghella only gave him three hints as to how he wanted the music to feel. As a passionate musician himself (including his love of film scores), Minghella loved an eclectic mix of jazz, classical, and popular music like The Beatles. He wanted Yared to capture the elegance of Puccini. He wanted Yared to achieve the tones of Johann Sebastian Bach (which they both shared a love for). But the most celebrated hint was the addition of an oriental tone, utilising an infusion of Hungarian expressions as part of The English Patient’s distinction. Yared included singer Márta Sebestyén (who sadly had to pull out of the event performance due to illness) to capture that essence, singing a folk song called Szerelem, audible from its opening sequence. Meaning ‘love’ in Hungarian translates the romantic nature of its story. Finishing the Q&A with a reading dedicated to Anthony Minghella, this was Yared’s proudest achievement.
Taking Sebestyén’s vocal place was Eleanor Grant. Performing alongside her was a regular favourite of the Royal Albert Hall, conductor Ludwig Wicki and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Starting things off in a playful fashion, they played the theme song of the Miramax logo before the film began, syncing flawlessly with the HD images from the projected screen.
Adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s book, The English Patient is defined as an epic tale of love and tragedy, set against the transcending backdrop of World War II. It’s easy to see why The Royal Albert Hall took a keen interest, because once Yared’s score starts playing and is placed lovingly into perspective, it is unsuspectingly mesmerising.
With Wicki in full control, you can feel those shifting and multi-layered tones with Yared creating an enchanting symphony that wouldn’t sound out of place on Classical FM. It’s not Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from Die Hard for example, but Yared’s score has an intricate and emotionally rousing effect to communicate the beauty within The English Patient.
Its central theme incorporates everything that Yared mentioned and accomplishes. It switches between traditional melodies and styles, gracing first with beauty, followed by mystery, into a smooth transition into an over-the-top, almost operatic grandeur of pain and heartbreak. For other sections, it’s the occasional transition into jazz and Cheek to Cheek from Top Hat to break up the settled rhythms. For a score of Yared’s quality, it never forgets the heart – love. Never feeling falsified or trivialised, like a symbiotic relationship between Yared’s score and Count Almásy’s (Ralph Fiennes) encapsulated emotions and his occasional burst into song, love speaks volumes for its characters.
It’s put into contextual focus whenever scenes flashback between a gravely-ill, amnesiac Almásy, suffering the effects from a plane crash, to the exploratory youthfulness and his illicit affair with Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the long winding road to their eventual fate. But Wicki and Yared convey those emotions with Hana (Juliette Binoche) and her diverging tale of fear, love and pain, running as a side commentary to Almásy.
The English Patient is a nice film, exceptional with its encompassing cinematography and appealing dialogue. There’s no getting away from the talent lost in Anthony Minghella. Remembering projects like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Minghella’s directorial eye for visual beauty takes centre stage. Channelling his inner ‘David Lean’ with Lawrence of Arabia, the panoramas of the desert and the Italian landscape convincingly help sell the conventional romance story.
Outside of its hype bubble of 1996, it doesn’t escape from the ‘Oscar-bait’ criticism. If establishing a modern-day comparison, then The English Patient draws similarities with Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech – a good, prestigious, period piece film that hits all the right notes in storytelling, but overhyped and overrated over possible stronger and more dynamic contenders. In the case of The English Patient, it was The Coen Brothers and Fargo that fell short, a film which has subsequently gone on to be a cult favourite and fantastic TV show in its own right. The English Patient does suffer from that perception. It’s not a film that magically wows you with its story that sadly has been told too many times before, predictably guessable if you strip away the spectacular scenic shots. It is very much a product of its time.
However, boosted by Yared’s score, the criticism can be slightly forgiven. The English Patient is comfortable in its formal structure. The chemistry between Fiennes and Thomas intensely travels between seduction and heartbreak. But in true Mingella fashion, they’re never perceived to be one dimensional. They are characters regularly challenging their desires, status and the reality of their world, particularly the conversation about ownership which later befalls Almásy in a jealous, drunken rage. As with all of Mingella’s stories, they document the human experience as a simple story told well, and The English Patient is no different in that respect.
As a Royal Albert Hall experience, Gabriel Yared’s score is captivatingly moving, convincingly reinforcing the themes from the film. Over time, the film may curiously grow on me on repeated viewings, unearthing more of its beauty, hidden meanings, and Mingella’s class. As for the score, its expansive scope and open-willingness for a heartfelt exploration have already made me a fan.