I consider The English Patient to be a member of the elite group of "perfect" films that could not be improved upon by any modification. It is beautiful, powerful, and masterfully assembled, and a true work of art. I’ve never read the novel, and perhaps those of you who have may feel differently, but from having watched this film as its own independent accomplishment, I can’t imagine changing a thing to make it better. The English Patient is a complex film that layers and intertwines complex storylines to the degree that you could watch it several times in succession and each time watch a different film if you so chose. Who is the protagonist? Who are the main characters? Which plot is the real story around which the others revolve? The lack of objective answers to these questions isn’t a sign of any weakness of the film; it’s a testament to its depth and integrity as a comprehensive work of art.
Having said all that, I’ll tell you that I don’t really like this movie. What? The reason I’m not a fan of the film has nothing to do with disavowing its rightful place among the classics. I don’t like this film because it is painful to experience (again, one of the reasons why it’s so good) and I just don’t really get into the idea of romances based on adulterous relationships. Hello, the woman was married to Colin Firth…and she left him?!? Call me old fashioned…but this boy believes in the sanctity of marriage (including those performed in Massachusetts)… and I just can’t feel good about a romance story that hinges on discarding that commitment for no good reason. This is getting too personal. Where’s my therapist?
Cinemagraphically The English Patient is a masterpiece. The director carefully avoids throwing images on the screen that would drown the serious nature of the film in post-card clichés. Rather, the beauty of the imagery is often about what you don’t see…but feel that you could were the camera to move slightly. Like a good chef, Director Anthony Minghella serves you courses brimming with flavor but the portions never quite make you full, preserving your appetite for the next course and the next. Minghella also unites image with sound in a way so natural and cohesive, one isn’t quite sure if the images were composed for the score or the score for the images. The opening titles and following sequence perfectly capture all of these rich and rare qualities, and is one of the most profoundly beautiful opening sequences of any film of any genre.
Acting is superlative. Each member of the cast seems born to play their role and the performances feel natural and effortless. The actors also work well together as a group and the relationships they represent are believable. Minghella delivers an excellent screenplay worthy of their tallent. And this film would not be The English Patient without the fabric of Gabriel Yared’s score binding all the pieces together.
That's how I feel about what MIRAMAX has done with the image on this disc. They’ve taken what was no doubt a beautiful print and HD transfer, and they filtered most of the HF detail out of the image and added copious amounts of ringing to try to sharpen it back up.
I’m aware that The English Patient is an inherently soft-focus style film. But what I’m seeing on the screen doesn’t look like a soft-focus film. It looks like filtered video. And the ringing. Ahhh! Some scenes seem to escape more or less unharmed because they lack any hard edges for the EE to really grab a hold of. But find a scene with a contour of a mountain skyline or silhouette of an actor’s profile and there is ringing galore. It really destroys the beauty of the image on the large screen and there is no way I could describe the image as remotely “film like” unless I back up beyond 2 screen widths or more. Ringing seems to affect vertical lines (horizontal frequency boost) most egregiously.
How bad is it? Well, it’s on the level of Kill Bill, Sound of Music, Pirates, or Open Range bad. Not the absolute WORST EE in the world, but definitely pushing for recognition. And all that real film detail lost to HF filtering. Honestly, there are lots of titles on my shelf with the same video problems that I don't get all upset about...but folks this is June of 2004 and this is a top-A title that we've waited YEARS to get properly transferd to 16x9 DVD! This isn’t “just another” movie; This is The English Patient “Special Edition”. It deserved better. MIRAMAX dropped the ball.
On the bright side, compression seems to be well handled overall. And with the soft-focus imagery, dark grays and misty scenery, compression was a challenge. I saw this film projected theatrically several times and the subdued color-palette is faithful to the source. Film grain is present which is refreshing and the effect is very faithful to my memory of the 35 mm print. Contrast on this new DVD seems improved over the previous non-anamorphic DVD edition and detail, despite being so filtered, is moderately (but not significantly) improved as well (you can see a little more film-grain which is a sign that more natural detail is coming through). On my 100” screen projected via my BenQ 8700+ DLP projector (fed a scaled 1280 x 720 image via DVI from my momitsu v880 DVD player), I’d say that the new DVD looks somewhat better than the previous DVD in terms of contrast, a little better in terms of detail, and a lot worse in terms of EE. If I had to choose which one to watch, it would be this new edition, but I’d move the couch several feet farther back into the room before the guests arrived to try to mitigate the distractibility of the ringing and improve the perception of detail.
Curiously, the image is matted on all four sides with very mild letter/window boxing. Perhaps this was to preserve the entire film-frame in the transfer to video without incurring any cropping. The overscan on the vast majority of displays will hide these very minor masking bars but running DVI to the front projector (calibrated for minimal overscan) they can be seen. Neither good nor bad, just letting you know in case you’re interested or wonder why you’re noticing small black bars on the left/right of your display.
So putting it all together? Is it nice to finally have the English Patient in 16x9 WS on DVD? Well…it might have been, and I’m certain that for those viewing on smaller screens where the resolving power is less acute and/or the viewing angle is narrower, this new DVD transfer will probably look quite nice (as I said earlier, when I move father than 2 screen widths away it looks good on my system too). But good enough for 27” TVs isn’t good enough in 2004, and Disney/MIRAMAX needs to figure out who/what is screwing up this DVD mastering and fix it. An image mastered to look good on a 100" screen will bring no complaints from those with 27" monitors, so the solution to master in high-resolution/fidelity should be obvious. Other studios are getting it right…why can’t they? Titles like the English Patient deserve much better, and DVD has the capacity to deliver if the studios will take advantage of it.
I want to clarify so there is no mistake: my negative impressions about the PQ of this disc are based on a 1.5-1.75 screen-width viewing distance (approx 30 degree viewing angle) from a front-projected image on a @7 foot wide screen, which is the way I believe that film-based DVD software should be judged. Those seated 2 screen widths away or more from their displays will probably find the image more than acceptable.
Picture: 3/ 5
If ever there was a “non-action” soundtrack to demonstrate the virtues of 5.1 DD/DTS surround, this is it. Guys who have been waiting for the right movie to “turn on” their girlfriend or wife to the joys of surround sound and hi-end audio gear, this is your chance.
The only problem with the audio is figuring out where to being praising it. Let’s start with frequency response. I hope you’ve carefully tuned in that subwoofer because the English Patient will put it to the test. Highs are crisp and extended without every sounding grating, bright, or harsh. Explosions from bomb shells, wind-sweeping sand-storms, a rich orchestral score, all make appropriate use of the dynamic range and frequency response available.
The 5.1 surround mix is immersive. The surrounds blend seamlessly with the front mains and encompass the listener in a cohesive and seamless 360 degree soundfield. The DD presentation is excellent, and the DTS takes it just a notch further and makes the speakers disappear. There is absolutely nothing gimmicky about the surround use on this disc. The 5.1 never draws attention to itself in any self-serving way; it always compliments and supports the on-screen action and serves to bring the experience to a visceral level. You may have to play that sandstorm sequence over again just to experience the adrenaline rush a second time.
This DVD presentation contains both a DTS and DD 5.1 mix (not sure about the 6.1 issue, I don’t have a center surround channel). In comparison to the 5.1 on the previous DVD, both soundtracks are an improvement. The 5.1 DD on this new edition has a sense of dimension and naturalness lacking on the (otherwise excellent) 5.1 DD mix on the older DVD. Whether this is due to a new mix or merely due to better Dolby Digital compression these several years later I do not know.
To my ears on my system (upgraded B&K AVR 212 processor/receiver and Onix Rocket loudspeakers) the DTS and DD presentations are very similar to each other, and the DTS only distinguishes itself in subtle, but still meaningful ways. On my system both presentations are very similar in playback level, but the DTS mix just adds a slightly greater sense of dimensionality to the music with a greater sense of front/back soundstage depth and instrumental separation. Voices sound slightly “rounder” on the DTS presentation and massed strings in the score sound more refined and resolved. As for me and my house…we will listen to DTS…
Thanks to the folks who did such an outstanding job mixing the audio for this film and for those who so faithfully preserved it for this DVD. Take a trip over to the video-mastering department and help them out…they need it!
Sound: 5/ 5
There are more extras on this 2-disc set than I can count. At the moment I’ve only been able to sample the special features (two commentary tracks) on disc one, but will list the features of disc 2 as are included in my promo material and I’ll try to get that 2nd disc watched and fully reviewed shortly!!
- [*][b]Feature Commentary with Director Anthony Minghella: This is the stuff that good commentaries are made of. Minghella peels back his thoughts and intentions behind this film layer by layer as you listen to his screen-specific commentary. The range of material is varied: from pragmatic discussions about deadlines, set difficulties or breaking his ankle, to introspective and intangible musings about artistic intentions and symbolic representation. Minghella’s commentary has it all. I found the commentary so interesting (rare for me) I had to force myself to stop the disc to leave so I wouldn’t be late for an evening dinner engagement. Chronologically, I believe this to be the more newly recorded of the two commentaries (which in large part share redundant information, but movie fans will surely want to listen to them both).
[*][b]Feature Commentary with Director Anthony Minghella, Producer Saul Zaentz, and novel Author Michael Ondaatje: I believe (but an not certain) that this commentary was recorded contemporary with the film’s release. This commentary is as engaging as the other, but I was disappointed to discover such little participation from Producer Zaentz and novel author Ondaatje. While not dogmatic, Minghella seems to dominate the discussion (mostly due to the passivity of the other two participants) and I found myself a bit perturbed at times when Minghella seemed to take liberty and speak for the other two guests when they were right there capable of speaking for themselves. If you consider this a second Minghella commentary with occasional trace-contributions by the film’s producer and book’s author, you won’t be misled and will find it more than digestible.
[/list] [b]Disc 2: (for now a simple list, I’ll add my own editorial review to these features soon)
- [*]About Michael Ondaatje
- [*]His Writing Roots[*]The Booker Prize and Canadian following[*]The Challenge of Turning the novel into a film[*]About writing the novel[*]Reading from the novel[/list][*]From the novel to screenplay-interviews with cast and crew[*]The formidable Saul Zaentz[*]A historical look at the real Count Almasy[*]Filmmaker Conversations
- [*]A conversation with screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella[*]A conversation with producer Saul Zaentz[*]A conversation with the writer of the novel – Michael Ondaatje[*]A conversation with film editor Walter Murch[/list][*]The work of Stuart Craig – production designer[*]The Eyes of Phil Bray – still photographer[*]”Master Class with Anthony Minghella” and discussion of deleted scenes[*]CBC Documentary – the Making of the English Patient[*]Film reviews.[/list]
The English Patient is a true masterpiece of film-making. If you appreciate powerful dramas and films that make the most of the “art” of film, the English Patient should be on your list. MIRAMAX has finally overturned the travesty of the past bare-bones DVD edition with a new 16x9 transfer, reference 5.1 DD/DTS audio, and enough special features to keep you occupied for days. My only criticism is the application of too much HF filtering and ringing to the image, which will mar the experience for large-screen viewers but probably won’t distract those with smaller displays. If you love this film, of course you’ll have to buy this DVD and enjoy the wealth of content it provides. If you haven’t seen this film but have been wondering what all the fuss us about, your opportunity to discover the English Patient is now.