The English Patient

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The English Patient


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


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. …

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