A review requested by Jordyn Auvil, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The big problem with The English Patient isn't even its fault: the problem is that Elaine Benes fucking hated it, and nobody who saw that 1997 episode of the sitcom Seinfeld before they caught up with the Oscar-worshiped romantic epic could possibly avoid hearing any echo of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's passionately anguished delivery of her character's rants. "Sex in a tub! That doesn't work!" or the incensed "Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert, and just die already! Die!" I will confess that, years and years before I first say the movie in the mid-'00s, I was prepared from that one line to find it unendurably stretched-thin and pokey, on top of already having my knives out from the film that swept the Academy Awards for 1996 when, if the universe were just, Secret & Lies and Fargo would have fought it out for all of the trophies everywhere. Is it any wonder, then, that it met my expectations?

Revisiting the film twice since than has softened me towards it, though I still can't say I love it; of director Anthony Minghella's picture postcard literary adaptations, I would rank it behind The Talented Mr. Ripley in every respect. It is, after all, quite a lot of movie, two hours and 42 minutes' worth, and the more movie you have, the greater the chances that not all of it will work equally well. I've found, generally speaking, that people who like The English Patient but don't adore it tend to cluster into two camps, based around which half of it is better: the "present day" plotline, or the "flashback" plotline, with the tacit implication that it would be better for all concerned if it could have gotten by without necessarily having to spend so much time on both of them. I happen to be a member of the "present day" camp, which is in no small part because I am also a member of the "Juliette Binoche is the best actress of the 1990s, and I really like you, Kristen Scott Thomas, but I'm sorry, just not that much" camp.

As adapted by Minghella from Michael Ondaatje's novel, The English Patient, broadly speaking, tells two love stories that play out during the Second World War, one in the beginning of the war, the other in its waning days. The action radiates backward from an Italian monastery that barely remains standing after years of fighting, currently serving as a field hospital. Here, Québécoise nurse Hana (Binoche) tends to a terribly burned English patient (Ralph Fiennes), who remembers neither his name nor his story. But as he slowly doles out what he does know, to Hana and to David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), another Canadian recuperating in the area, we learn the full version of his history, the one he either does not or cannot access himself. He is, it turns out, the Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almásy, and at the time war broke out in the late 1930s, he was mapping the Sahara Desert for the British government, alongside an Englishman named Madox (Julian Wadham). Their expedition is joined by the married Cliftons, Katharine (Scott Thomas) and Geoffrey (Colin Firth), and Almásy and Katharine soon strike up a love affair that ebbs and flows during those tense times in North Africa. Back in 1945, while Hana tends to Almásy and hears his story, she meets Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh engineer in the British Army, and has a much less torrid, heaving, and sandy affair of her own.

The English Patient is a film of particular bigness, as Minghella splashes all the grandeur of the Sahara and North Africa across his screen in dauntingly orange landscape shots and more domestic scenes that lovingly foreground Stuart Craig's heavily detailed, lived-in production design. And it is also a film of great and subtle intimacy, relying extensively on close-ups of Fiennes and Scott Thomas. This mix is the film's biggest aesthetic strength, putting it somewhere on the spectrum of great psychological epics on the Lawrence of Arabia model, movies that successfully use an enormous canvas to paint a human-sized portrait (there are few of these that are genuinely good than you might hope for). But if I allow my inner Elaine to pipe up, it's also monotonous: there simply isn't much incident to stretch out to 162 minutes. Individually, many of the component scenes of The English Patient are miracles of mythic filmmaking: the sequence in which Almásy carries Katharine from a plane crash to the safety of some distant caves is Epic Cinema 101. But these great moments are separated by longueurs that do absolutely nothing but restate things we already knew, and though Scott Thomas was never better at inhabiting the space in front of the camera with casual sensual force than she was in this production, any movie that consists for seemingly half of its running time of watching two people smolder at each other is a movie that needs to answer some tough questions about its priorities.

That's part of why I prefer the framework with Hana and Kip and David: it feels more consequential, more rooted in historical context, and more driven. None of this is accidental, mind you. An important part of Minghella's strategy in the film is to contrast the relatively straightforward, plain, and tangible "now" story with the heated, highly subjective and abstracted "then" story, which is meant to work as a hazy dream of physical memory and emotional states - it is an impressionistic approach rather than a narrative one, nimbly aided by cinematographer John Seale and composer Gabriel Yared, the most important members of the filmmaking team for helping to construct that kind of detached High Romantic atmosphere of feeling rather than observing. And I admire this. But I would admire 50 minutes of it every bit as much as I admire two hours of it.

The Italian framework, meanwhile, is much less showy, but for my tastes, much more meaningful. While Scott Thomas and Fiennes are stuck playing concepts of erotic psychology, Binoche simply gets to play a human being, and she's better in her role than either of them (Andrews is the best member of the cast every time he opens his mouth, but in a limited part that has been weirdly slashed down from its importance in the source novel). And instead of the heaving visual overstimulation of the Eternal Desert, it takes place in a perfectly realised, deeply physical space, one in which the use of color and framing and slowness do a superb job of evoking the feel of cool, damp air, and the rough texture of ancient brick and stone. If the romantic flashback segments of film are an evocation of the way we remember places and physical sensation, the framework evoke feeling things and being in places right now. And coupled with the more down-to-earth characterisations and performances, I find all of that to be more satisfying.

That all being said, The English Patient is exactly the kind of movie that feels like it ought to have an enormously passionate fanbase - it is an intense, lush experience that hits right in the gut, while the films I will eternally check it against, Fargo and Secrets & Lies, take dead aim at the brain and allow the libido to shrivel up unattended. The English Patient is utterly gorgeous, and it's lusty and sexy in a very literate, classy way - the R-rated Miramax equivalent to the star-studded, posh European superproductions of the 1960s. There's a lot to be said for that, even when the results are the kind of half-baked and over-baked confection that this particular film turns out to be. I do find it all a bit tiring rather than exhilarating, and I can't imagine that's what the filmmakers had in mind, but I absolutely do respect the top-to-bottom commitment to making this movie the most fleshed-out version of itself possible. It's an enormous, indulgent beast, but it's completely honest about it.