Blu-ray Disc review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits
The English Patient
2006 (2012) - Lionsgate (Miramax)
Released on Blu-ray on January 31st, 2012
Also available on DVD
Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 17.5
Audio (1-20): 18
If you haven't yet seen Anthony Minghella's The English Patient, perhaps the best way to introduce it is simply to describe its beginning. To the sound of a woman's haunted singing, we see a canvas, as someone paints the dark silhouette of a swimming figure. This image dissolves into the desert seen from the air, shadowy dunes passing slowly beneath us so that the figure seems for a moment to be gliding over them.
|Then we hear the drone of an engine and a bi-plane drifts into view. On board, we see the peaceful face of a woman, who seems to be sleeping. In the seat behind her, a man pilots the plane, his face hidden by a leather flying helmet and goggles. As they pass over a ridge, they're spotted by the crew of a Nazi anti-aircraft battery, which opens fire. The shells rip through the aircraft and puncture its fuel tank. The plane and its occupants are consumed by fire.
The pilot, horribly burned, is found near the wreckage and rescued by Bedouin tribesmen. Months later, he finds himself in Italy, under the care of Hanna (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse in the Allied army during World War II. She's been emotionally devastated by the horrors she's seen and is, in this way, as wounded as her patient. As their hospital convoy drives across the Tuscany countryside, Hanna finds an abandoned monastery and decides to stay there to care for her patient in peace until he dies. But others soon arrive - a young Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews), who is working for the Allies as part of a bomb disposal unit, and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a haggard thief and spy with a mysterious agenda. As these four damaged lives converge for a brief time amid the chaos of the final days of the war, the "English" patient slowly remembers his life before - a tragic story of love, adventure, intrigue and betrayal.
There is much to love about this film. The acting is nuanced and subtle. Minghella's direction is deft and his screenplay adaptation of the original Michael Ondaatje novel is a wonder - so much so that it's hard to remember where the novel ends and the script begins. John Seale's cinematography is striking, with lush, vibrant color and fascinating contrasts. The story shifts back and forth in time and space almost effortlessly, thanks to Walter Murch's brilliant editing. Even the score, by composer Gabriel Yared, is impressive, creating an evocative mood of passion and mystery. Many of those involved here won Oscars for their work - the film took home nine, including Best Picture, all well deserved.
For those of you who already own either the 2004 Miramax 2-disc DVD release of this film, or the more recent 2009 Canadian import Blu-ray from Alliance Atlantis, you likely have two questions about Lionsgate's new U.S. Blu-ray release. First, is it an improvement on those previous versions? Second, is it improved enough to be worth an upgrade? The answer to both question is: Yes!
The improvements in the new 1080p transfer are almost immediately apparent. Detail seems just a bit more refined in the new image, with less obvious digital filtering and enhancement. Colors are noticeably more accurate and lush. (Note the blue color of nurses' blouses at about 9 minutes in, as well as the yellow skin of the Cliftons' biplane at about 22 minutes - both are visibly more vibrant in the new Blu-ray.) Contrast seems slightly improved too, but the other major upgrade is in the area of dirt removal. The opening scene in the Alliance Blu-ray, in which we first see the plane soaring over the desert, was rife with dirt, dust and visible nicks on the print. Most of this has been cleaned up for the new Lionsgate edition. I'd give the old version about a 15 in terms of video grading and this new Blu-ray scores a good 2.5 points higher by my estimate - still not reference quality but clearly much improved.
The 5.1 audio presentation on the new Blu-ray is also slightly improved, but by very small measure. The original DVD included Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, while the Alliance BD offered DTS-HD 5.1. Both mixes were of already excellent quality. The new Lionsgate Blu-ray offers what SEEMS to be a new DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Changes are very subtle, but to my ear at least seem to open up the soundfield a little bit more. The staging seems just a little more enveloping, the directional sound effects a little smoother and more natural. In any case, the audio experience here is excellent.
If, however, the improved A/V quality isn't enough to convince you to upgrade, the extras may. The Alliance Blu-ray offered nothing whatsoever in terms of bonus content, while this new release includes everything that was on the original 2-disc Miramax DVD release, including a pair of audio commentaries, the CBC's The Making of the English Patient documentary, the Master Class deleted scenes piece and scores of additional interview featurettes. The only thing missing from the Miramax DVD are a trio of text reviews for the film - that's it and it's a very minor omission. Of course, the Criterion laserdisc edition of this film included some additional material for this film (a few more short featurettes and a series of trailers and TV spots for the film) none of which is here. To be fair, there's also no new content. I would have liked perhaps a new retrospective featurette, maybe some new interviews with the actors looking back at the film. Not here. Still, the existing extras were all quite good and having them included on Blu-ray means you can finally let all your DVD copies go.
For my money, The English Patient remains one of the best Hollywood films of the past 15 years and a worthy Best Picture winner. Given that this new Blu-ray edition can be purchased for just $15 on Amazon, fans of the film should run - not walk - to make the upgrade. Highly recommended!