Here Comes the Sun
Michael Koresky on Juliette Binoche in The English Patient

The first words spoken to Juliette Binoche’s Hana in Anthony Minghella’s film of The English Patient are “You are the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” It’s said by a wounded, possibly dying soldier whom Hana, a Canadian nurse serving throughout Europe during World War II, tends to on a shadowy train car. In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, Hana is not introduced to the viewer via another character’s perspective, for she is unambiguously the protagonist. Narrated in the third person, the book, a tale of tales that’s also a catalogue of sensations, is largely from her point of view.

In the movie, Hana is a beatific nurse who provides the emotional and physical space for us to learn about the juicy backstory of the man she has tasked herself with caring for, the burned-beyond-recognition stranger with whom she shares an otherwise abandoned Italian villa turned makeshift war hospital. To Ondaatje, the mysterious English patient’s tragic yarn is relevant for how it reflects on and adds to the dimension and character of Hana. Her relationships with Caravaggio, the Canadian thief she knew from back home before the war, and Kip, the Indian sapper who has arrived to help defuse land mines in the area, are more central to the psychological landscape and tenor of Ondaatje’s book than the unidentified Englishman’s hugely consequential, adulterous affair with Catherine, which we learn about in parceled-out, nested flashbacks—and which is the melodramatic linchpin of Minghella’s film. Onscreen the storyteller becomes the star, while the listener is minimized. Binoche, however, makes Hana luminous—and central—regardless of her passivity.

Despite her second billing in the credits, Juliette Binoche won the supporting actress Oscar for The English Patient, and the decision by Miramax and the Academy to give her that secondary designation says a lot about the changed scope of the role from page to screen. Hana is almost surely not the protagonist of the film, yet Binoche is undoubtedly our emotional surrogate figure. Within the first few minutes, we get a quick succession of cataclysmic events that mark Hana as a tragic figure. Mere moments after being called “the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” she’s face down in mud, weeping over discovering that her long-time sweetheart has been killed in battle, while explosions are going off all around her. In a subsequent scene, she loses her close friend and fellow nurse right in front of her eyes after the friend's jeep is destroyed in a sudden mine explosion. “I must be cursed,” she soon states, a self-laceration she will repeatedly intone.

Binoche carves out her own movie in The English Patient. It was a turning point in her career, and not just because the Oscar opened her up to a wider audience. The most internationally prominent films in which she had starred up to this point were largely showcases for her expertise at playing impassive gamines and girlfriends, as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Damage, or stoic sufferers, as in Blue. Her seminal work for Leos Carax had yet to reach these shores in any significant way, hard to find even for those who may have been looking. For most American viewers, The English Patient marked the first time Binoche was allowed to let the sunshine in, and her Hana is indeed a wondrous creation, who all but glows from some inner strength, self-awareness, and boundless compassion.

Minghella’s version of Ondaatje’s book is a contraption, a film that functions more as a solution to the question of how to ever adapt it rather than a deeply felt evocation of the novel itself. This doesn’t dilute any of the film’s particular resonance, but it certainly makes it something different from what it is on the page. And in the rush to find the most “cinematic” story to tell from the source material, the film wrests itself away from the book’s central characters—Hana and Kip—and projects nearly all of its drama onto the more melodramatic tale of the doomed adulterous affair between Count László Almásy and Catherine—in other words, the more directly colonialist, white narrative.

Thus, the sidelining of Hana and the even more egregious marginalization of Kip, played by Naveen Andrews, has political repercussions that not even Binoche’s depth and beaming warmth can overcome. Minghella’s film is intrigued by Hana mostly as a conduit to Almásy’s story, and as a result overplays the woman’s fascination and attraction to the mystery man. The English Patient is most effective as a movie about looking and listening. In the film’s central flashbacks, charting the incremental path leading to Catherine’s terrible end, Ralph Fiennes’s unforgettable stork-like stare-downs of his forbidden lover lodge in the mind more than any of the film’s various plane-crash or sandstorm set pieces. Meanwhile in the film’s present, Binoche’s face, as she listens to his elaborate tales of woe, becomes a manifestation of the empathy we’re intended to feel. Because her performance is so often located in reaction shots, and because she can charge even the smallest glance with a history of conflicted feelings, Binoche makes what might have otherwise been a rote audience double into a rich repository for all the film’s inquiries. And because, unlike the more poetically diffuse book, it’s a film that has clearly foregrounded Big Themes—the lack of necessity for borders in love and nationhood, the facelessness of war, the variable definitions of human betrayal—a less multilayered, more conventional performer than Binoche may have allowed the film to feel more bromidic just by virtue of her patient, reactive listening role.

While the Sri Lankan–born Ondaatje told a great deal of his novel from the perspective of Kirpal Singh, the twenty-something Sikh soldier from Punjab trained for war and bomb defusing in the British military, devoting much time to outlining his experiences with racism in the colonial army, in the movie Kip becomes little more than a love interest for Hana. This both gives Binoche another man to care for—one whose beauty and physical presence stand in stark contrast to the prone, faceless man she’s tending to—and allows Kip to be further exoticized, an object of fascination and desire. Andrews’s Kip is given only a couple lines of dialogue to speak against the evils of the British Empire, an argument with Almásy that is framed as little more than good-natured ribbing.

Late in the film, when Kip, stationed outside the villa to defuse any landmines in the area, has begun to court Hana in earnest, Minghella makes room for a flight of fancy; he unexpectedly harnesses Hana and, using a handmade pulley system, whisks her into the air so she can see the frescoes at the top of a medieval convent by the light of a flare. Set to Gabriel Yared’s delicate “Convento Di Sant’Anna” score, the scene is meant to be incandescent, yet its all-consuming cinematic romanticism further trivializes Kip, making him a magical other who allows our white heroine to experience wonder. Again, it’s Binoche’s wide-open, dazzled face—her reaction shots—that truly give the scene its lift, making the moment experiential where it might have been simply telegraphed.

In another odd adaptation choice, the thumbless thief Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) has been changed from Ondaatje’s original conception of the character as a close friend of Hana’s late father back in Canada before the war to a complete stranger who has arrived at the villa under unknown circumstances. The decision clearly adds mystery and intrigue to what Minghella might have thought would be a static tableau of characters, but it also serves most dramatically to further subtract backstory from Hana, and to not deal with the traumatic loss of her father. Ondaatje writes evocatively about how war changes people, and the book’s passages between Hana and Caravaggio are pregnant with the ache of the past and the uncertainty of the future. In the film, the characters live in the moment; if they are haunted by the past, it’s located in Almásy, the vessel for everyone’s romantic fears and projections. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” Dafoe’s stranger Caravaggio interrogates Hana, oddly, considering their lack of intimacy. “I’m in love with his ghosts…” she responds. In the absence of a finely drawn, legible past, Hana is all but forced to devote herself to someone else’s.

These curiosities of adaptation may dilute the richness with which Ondaatje draws Hana, but Binoche makes even these deficiencies seem like strengths, a testament to the skills of an actor who can bring heavy emotional baggage to even the most thinly drawn roles. Think of Lasse Hallström’s overall trite Miramax product Chocolat, in which she imbues depth and visible conflict to a part that’s basically an evocation of a magical French sprite, or her wife role in Michael Haneke’s Caché, in which she’s relegated to wearing a series of dumpy sack-cloth dresses as she watches her husband’s drama unfold from the sidelines, but in which she nevertheless holds the screen with anxious intent. Even in something as goofy as Godzilla, she makes her few scenes count, disallowing us from thinking she’s just giving a day’s walk-on work rather than portraying a significant moment in the life of a complete person who just happens to be a nuclear plant technician. Regardless of how much interest The English Patient actually has in Hana, the film has no choice but to stay intensely focused on Binoche—there’s no way a film can ignore her. In essence, Binoche doesn’t do background shots. She’s always there, undeniable; she magnetizes viewers to the screen by force of will; the size and scope of the character are unimportant.

The English Patient does allow Hana the final image. Catherine, the story within the story’s tragic female heroine, cruelly, slowly dies in the darkness of a cave. Hana, however, emerges into the light. Germany has surrendered, and she is leaving the villa. As a car drives her away, she looks up at the sun streaming through tall trees; it shines on her, glaring its blinding rays directly into the camera before the screen cuts to black.