Not since David Lean's sumptuous Doctor Zhivago has an epic of hearts been so garlanded with praise as Anthony Minghella's elegant and thought provoking The English Patient (currently on release) which received a stunning twelve nominations in the American Oscars. Yet, ironically, although made mainly with British talent - director and screenwriter Minghella, actors Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott-Thomas - it was financed with US dollars so most of the profit the film generates will go straight back to America. Surprisingly, though, it was hard to get even Hollywood backing, and Twentieth Century Fox even turned it down. Minghella, who spent four years writing and directing the film, points out, 'Most of the cast and crew are British, and that's why it was hard to finance in Hollywood. It looked like an ambitious European movie with no guarantee of success'. Now the film is proving a winner with both critics and public alike.
The story is one of shattered lives. A desperately wounded and badly scarred man is taken by Hana, a French-Canadian nurse, to a ruined monastery in Tuscany at the end of the Second World War. Hana believes she is cursed - her traumatic experiences in the war have convinced her that anybody she feels love for is destined to die. The shock of the accidental death of her closest friend moves her to this act of retreat, of leaving her colleagues and hiding in the monastery and trying to do one thing right - to care for her patient and make his inevitable death a dignified one.
The patient claims to have forgotten everything, including his name, and the only clue to his identity is the book he has with him, a copy of the histories by Herodotus, the fifth century BC Greek historian - a book filled with personal letters and drawings and maps and photographs.
A man disturbs the temporary peace of the monastery. He is also Canadian and relishes his past as a thief, an occupation which he tells Hana has qualified him - along with his Italian heritage - to work for the army in disarming the local partisans. His name is Caravaggio, and like the other two characters in the monastery he has suffered his own damage. His hands are mysteriously covered and he seems to have a special interest in the morphine supply that Hana has stockpiled to care for her patient. It soon transpires that Caravaggio has also been in North Africa. This is where the English patient was shot down. They appear to have many things in common.
Hana begins to read to her patient from his copy of Herodotus. The book has a potent effect. In the manner of the madeleine cakes which enable the hero of Proust's Remembrances of Things Past to recapture lost time, it seems that merely opening the book and glancing at its pages and cuttings, transports the patient, involuntarily, to his past as an explorer in the Sahara.
It emerges that the patient was a prominent member of a pre-war expedition making maps of hitherto uncharted deserts - an international group from England's Royal Geographical Society. Into the midst of this group come a young couple, Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton, an aristocratic pair recently wed. He is a bright and charming aviation enthusiast, she is a scholar and a painter, a woman without fear. They become enthusiastic apprentices to the International Sand Club (as the expeditionary team have dubbed themselves). The team is led by Count Laszlo de Almasy, an Hungarian who is a noted linguist and explorer (the English patient), and his partner Peter Maddox. These two are pioneering motorised exploration - by plane and car - of the deepest regions of the Sahara. (There has been considerable debate about Almasy since the films premiere: his title is said to have been self-bestowed and some contend he was a spy.)
The arrival of the Cliftons has a profound effect on Almasy. He is by nature a loner, private and indifferent to the social complexities of Cairo and its elaborate colonial life. But what makes him compulsive in his drive to explore the desert also informs the overwhelming attraction he develops for Katherine. They both try to resist their feelings, but it is as if events conspire to bring them together. They are unwilling hostages to their desire until an accident in the desert finds them stranded alone and they begin a passionate, intensely erotic affair which has catastrophic consequences for them both and for all those around them. The unravelling of their passion and its impact on Katherine's husband is intrinsically connected to public events surrounding them, with Europe plunging into war, with friendships which never have abided by frontiers having suddenly to deal with the artificial boundaries of nationality, as Englishman is pitted against German, colleague against colleague. 'Betrayals in war' writes Almasy in his copy of Herodotus, 'are childlike compared with our betrayals during peace. New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire'.
How the patient received his terrible injuries, how Katherine and Geoffrey Clifton lost their lives, what became of the maps created by the expedition team and whose contents have a significant role to play in the desert war, what happened to Caravaggio's hands to reduce him to a morphine addict intent on revenge form the heart of the story in the desert - a tragic counterpoint to the healing relationships in the monastery.
Based on Michael Ondaatje's Booker prize winning novel, the film opens in deceptively tranquil fashion - a biplane flies over the Sahara, its shadow reflected like a large insect on the shimmering white sands, when, all of a sudden, comes the burst of machine gun fire, the plane is hit and we realise that a war is raging. Indeed it is through the prism of war that the themes of fidelity, adultery, love, friendship and betrayal are dramatised and explored. The story, which constantly shifts back and forth in time, is told elliptically through the histories of four characters who find themselves in the ruined monastery. Each is a victim, each damaged in some mysterious way by the war. Slowly they reveal themselves and, in the process, the true identity of the English patient. The film intricately weaves the rich tapestry of the characters' collective pasts - from the perilous sands of the Sahara to the bustling streets and grand hotels of Cairo to the green hills of Tuscany. Passion fires these stories, whether it is the raw passion between lovers, or the compulsive passion which drives men to explore remote and inhospitable regions, or to pursue across time and countries those they think have wronged them.
Although this is basically a study in repressed emotions, the last section of the film is intensely moving as we realise that the protagonists, Almasy and Katherine will only find the true happiness they seek in the after life.
Sharply scripted and ravishingly shot - in Italy and Tunisia - the film is often breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with the sights and sounds of the Middle East palpably felt. One sequence, in particular, a violent sandstorm is magnificently recreated and extremely exciting to watch.
But the film would not work as well as it does without a top notch cast to give it the necessary sense of authenticity, and Ralph Fiennes, giving his best performance since Schindler's List as the brave, severe and complex Count Almasy, Kristin Scott-Thomas as the upper class British wife who falls in love with him, Colin Firth as her husband, Juliette Binoche as Hana, a woman whose vocation is to heal but who is in chronic need of healing herself, and Willem Defoe as the enigmatic Caravaggio succeed in bringing the characters vividly to life.
The English Patient is a film of a style and grandeur that we do not often see on the screen.
[Laurence Green is an arts writer who contributes to many international publications.]…