Film: `The English Patient' has 12 Oscar and 13 BAFTA nominations. But, asks John Lyttle, why all this fuss over a dressed-up costume drama with nowhere to go?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Given that America has no tradition of what might be called BBC costume drama - art dressed up, epic but intimate, prettily pictorial but impeccably literate, and terribly, terribly tasteful - it is perhaps not surprising that it should clutch Anthony Minghella's The English Patient [Colin Firth and Kristin Scott-Thomas pictured right] to its bosom.

Well, it's so... English and so classy, and as David Lean, Merchant- Ivory and Sir Richard Attenborough have established, there's an appetite for these exports and their exquisitely calculated sensibility. Essentially weepies in arthouse drag, they have a tendency to flatter their audiences, indeed, to the point of being applauded for taking risks while actually being as commercial as any vulgar old Love Story.

Which is why the market is today growing. See the likes of Bertolucci (The Sheltering Sky, Stealing Beauty) Jane Campion (this week's Portrait of a Lady) and Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), among others. Though sorry tales are oft told of major studios turning down these projects, the truth is subtly different: not only is there financing, there's probably more financing than ever before. Hence Miramax and Buena Vista stumping up for The English Patient and its already patented formula of desert vistas, repressed emotions, tragic romance and excessive/ impressive running- time (close to three hours).

So The English Patient's Oscar nominations, rather than coming as a surprise, are instead to be expected. This can't be said, however, of the picture's 13 - count 'em - BAFTA nominations, because we do have a tradition of BBC costume drama, with a sub-branch exclusively devoted to expat doings in decaying colonial climes (Jewel in the Crown, Fortunes of War and The Flame Trees of Thika spring to mind). Rightly or wrongly, movies like Shadowlands, Remains of the Day and The English Patient tend to receive a better box- office and critical reception in North America than here for a reason. Crassly put: we know, and are by now partially immune to, the tricks, tropes and stiff upper-lipped turns, as perhaps are our European neighbours. The Berlin Film Festival, after all, refused to follow the Golden Globes and the Academy, instead awarding The English Patient a single Silver Bear to Juliette Binoche for Best Actress.

Hype so overwhelming creates its own backlash, and unfair as that undoubtedly is, the BAFTA nominations could further stoke impossible expectations, especially on home turf, and especially given lackadaisical punter response at previews (one attempt at an ovation met a swift death). That lukewarm appreciation is not, of course, shared by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, but then its multi-category approval, from Best Film to Best Hair/ Make-up, may also be mediated by its yearning for a Big British Phenomenon, an international hit one can be proud of, and never mind where the money came from. It's one form of snobbery colliding with another form of snobbery, and that ain't classy, that's just that other Big British Phenomenon - class: middle, refined, and self-congratulatory.