The Role Of Nostalgia In The English Patient

3141 words - 13 pages

In “Theory Number Five: Anatomy of Nostalgic Films: Heritage and Method (1977), one of the first writings which addressed nostalgic representations of the past in cinema, Marc Le Sueur notes that nostalgia is “a concept of history”, one for which “few have attempted to establish the general working principles” (p.189). It is not a conservative phenomenon, but rather a way of engaging with the past and bringing into the present that which other approaches to history ignore, as he further indicates. His conception prefigured two dominant tendencies of research into nostalgia in film studies. While the first examines the use of intertextual devices and flashbacks to evoke nostalgia (Lurry 2000, Wollen 1991), the second aims to evaluate the relationship between nostalgic film and history (Boym 2001, Dika 2003, Grainger 2002, Hutcheon 1989, Jameson 1985). Although the former identifies useful tools for cinematic analysis of film texts, the latter is more relevant to media and cultural studies, for it assesses nostalgia in relation to our historical consciousness. The film “The English Patient” (1996), written for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, presents its audiences with a complex mise-en-scène viewed through the filter of nostalgic memories and demonstrates those vital issues of cinematic nostalgia on various levels. Therefore, in this essay, I shall examine the way in which nostalgia in the movie helps reflect on issues of the “present”, subvert the undisputed history and offer competing mythologies of the 1930s.
The film tells the life story a critically burned plane crash victim, who was at first reluctant to disclose any personal information and only known as “the English patient”. In the last days of World War II, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse, offered to take care of him in the ruins of an Italian monastery. Under Hana's tender care, the English patient retrieved his memory through a series of flashbacks, which reveal his real identity: a Hungarian count named László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), who flew over the Sahara Desert making maps and whose fateful love affair with a married woman, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), ultimately brought about his present situation. The credibility of the patient’s narrative was later challenged when David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a former Canadian intelligence operative, arrived at the monastery and accused that the patient's actions had led to his torture, in which he lost his thumbs by the Nazis. The plot, which is an adaption of the novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, features the patient’s journey “backward into memory, forward into loss and desire” (Ebert 1996) and hence, lends the movie a sense of nostalgia. In particular, nostalgia serves to narrativise the protagonist’s tragedy and enable him to show the determination to remain faithful to his love for Katherine. However, in the context of critical media and cultural studies’ emphasis on ideology,...

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