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Don't Say You Have No Choices | Movie Review / THE
SERIOUS

'The English Patient' Travels Poetic Path to Wartime Love

November 15, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Love in the extremes of wartime. Love in a dangerous, unstable universe where questions of nationality and betrayal predominate. Love that sears and scars, like the pitiless expanses of the Sahara. Love that heals, like the verdant countryside of Italy. "The English Patient" explores it all, surely, grandly, operatically.

A mesmerizing romantic epic taken from Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel, "The English Patient" stars Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and a radiant Kristin Scott Thomas in a story that spans two continents and a single world war. "The heart is an organ of fire" is its theorem, and it's proved with absolute assurance.

Created by writer-director Anthony Minghella, the film echoes the Ondaatje book by being poetic at the core. While it inevitably picks and chooses among the novel's plot elements, "The English Patient" retains the original's elusive, evanescent soul.

It does so especially in the way it reveals itself. Nothing is straightforward, no story moves purposefully from Point A to B. Delicately calibrated between the present of Italy in 1944 and the past of North Africa in the late 1930s, the film's John Seale-photographed images create a nonlinear dream-time sensibility, mysterious, exotic, not quite of this world.

And, right from the start, "The English Patient" insists on patience where specifics are concerned. The film opens with a ravishing visual prelude, as a Tiger Moth biplane, a man and a woman in its open cockpits, goes down in flames in the trackless desert. Who these people are, what they were attempting and how it relates to the magisterially unfolding plot are questions whose answers are doled out with artful restraint.

That restraint is made inevitable by the partial amnesia of the horribly burned pilot, glimpsed being tended to by Arabs just after his crash and in an Allied hospital train in Italy near the end of World War II. Known as the English patient because of the witty asides ("I'm a bit of toast, my friend--butter me and slip a poached egg on top") he makes in that language, the man remembers his past only in fragmentary, ambiguous flashbacks.

Caring for the English patient on the hospital train is Hana (Binoche), a young French Canadian nurse from Montreal. Her essential goodness nearly destroyed by combat's unending cruelty and convinced by a series of deaths that she must be cursed, Hana decides to opt out of the nearly finished war. Taking the patient, her last remaining connection to life, and a large supply of morphine with her, she moves into an abandoned monastery to await his death.

The English patient's only possession is a worn copy of the Greek historian Herodotus. Reading to him from its pages stirs his memory, and gradually we discover both who the man under that mass of scar tissue once was and what the life he can barely remember was like.

Count Laszlo de Almasy (Fiennes) is a Hungarian explorer, an erudite and aloof old desert hand who's a key participant in an international expedition sent out by Britain's Royal Geographic Society in the 1930s to discover and map the far reaches of the Sahara, including the remarkable Cave of the Swimmers and its wall paintings.

Stiff, unbending and rusty at the social graces, Almasy doesn't know how to respond when his group is joined not only by jaunty Englishman Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) but by his confident and beautiful wife, Katharine (Scott Thomas). Her fearlessness sets something off in him, as his self-possession is a challenge to her, and their attraction for each other, especially when she reads a provocative section of Herodotus by firelight, is not in doubt.

*

Alternating with this in Walter Murch's complex editing scheme are increasing complexities at the monastery in Italy, where two men arrive independently. Caravaggio and Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, are considerably more developed in the novel, but even in their abbreviated movie state they are essential to the story's development.

Carravagio (Willem Dafoe) is a thief turned intelligence operative who comes from the same Montreal neighborhood as Hana. Mysterious about his background and the cause of an injury to his hands, he is surprisingly insistent about finding out as much as anyone can about the English patient.

Kip (Naveen Andrews) is a Sikh serving as a lieutenant in the British Army with a specialty in bomb disposal. Handsome, gentle, fanatical about his work, he becomes attracted to Hana, and the course of their relationship is a counterpoint to the increasingly complicated and passionate liaison between Almasy and Katharine.

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