Quiet holidays with The English Patient

For years I spent the Thanksgiving holidays alone. Solitude always has been a great comfort for me, a form of re-energizing. Thanksgiving weekend 1996 stands out and I oddly comeback to it year after year.

I usually avoided telling people I was alone on Thanksgiving in order to avoid the awkward invitation to the festivities of other families. In 1996 I lived in Norfolk, Virginia. The weather was a cool, damp, gray autumn (or so I recall). That Wednesday night before Thanksgiving I wanted to go to the movies, which I did quite often in that stage of my life. A movie starting that night was The English Patient. I drove out to the Regal Cinema in the suburban city known as Virginia Beach. I always arrive almost anyplace far too early. I sat in the parking lot in my Honda Accord, waiting an appropriate amount of time, probably fifteen to twenty minutes, which is why I remember the weather that evening, though I could very well be confusing it with some other evening in the cinema parking lot.

A few years before when I lived in Knoxville I had read Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, which I enjoyed immensely despite the complicated plot structure. Upon completing the novel I remarked to myself, “This book can never be filmed.” Obviously I was wrong. But I did not have high expectations for the movie. And it seems on that first night few people did.

In those years I regularly read a glossy movie magazine that highlighted current films. A special edition highlighted movies coming out during the holidays. The English Patient was given small mention but greater attention was given to another period piece starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock. I recall the magazine touting that The English Patient had little chance competing at the box office against the O’Donnell/Bullock In Love and War. Perhaps that was a fair assertion, though it seems ludicrous in hindsight. But In Love and War was directed by the acclaimed Richard Attenborough, based on writings by Hemingway, and starred two popular names at the time.

It must be pointed out that I avoid reading reviews of a movie until after I’ve seen the film. Movie reviews just reveal too much. At the Regal Cinema that night, only a small auditorium was allotted to The English Patient, again another hint that large crowds were not expected. But the tiny theater was packed. And now whenever I see that movie again, as the opening credits play, followed by the tinkling sounds of the bottles, I find myself mentally transported back to that night. Almost three hours later I left the theater, having stayed seated through the final credits. I walked out to my car alone and drove back to my apartment in Norfolk.

I would go see that movie again before the weekend was over. During the Christmas holiday I went home to Tennessee and took my mother to see the movie at the old Belcourt theater in Nashville. Back in Virginia I would see the movie even more. I never watch a movie more than once on my own, but that fall and winter I went to see The English Patient at least a half-dozen times. Maybe I had fallen in love with Juliette Binoche.

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