The English Patient

By Ansen, David | Newsweek, November 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

The English Patient


Ansen, David, Newsweek


The novel seemed impossible to film. But 'The English Patient' comes to ravishing life on screen.

ANYONE WHO READ MICHAEL Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel "The English Patient" must have wondered how this lyrical, dreamlike tale could possibly be turned into movie. A meditation on love and identity and war, it drifts from World War II Italy to the prewar desert of North Africa, not so much telling a story as circling around one. It was a shimmering, impressionistic book that inspired passionate devotion or turned readers off on its first, ripely poetic page. Anthony Minghella, the English playwright turned filmmaker ("Truly Madly Deeply"), read it in one gulp and knew he had to film it. "A lot of my friends said that I'd gone mad," he says. "Because it does defy conventional adaptation."

But Minghella has done it. More precisely, he's given us an interpretation of the novel that succeeds stunningly on its own terms. He's seen that at the heart of Ondaatje's novel was a love story screaming to get out-and he's liberated that romance with wit, sophistication and passion. lira English Patient is both an old-fashioned movie-movie-extravagantly romantic, replete with spies, baffles, sandstorms and ravishing vistas of Egypt and Tuscany-- and a new kind of elliptical epic that challenges the audience to piece its fragments together. A modernist melodrama, it's the sort of movie that can reach both the art-house crowd and the popcorn patrons.

The movie, like the book, slips back and forth in time, a jigsaw puzzle of memory. In the present, we are in an abandoned monastery in Tuscany near the end of World War II, where a French Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliet Binoche), is tending to her hideously burned "English patient" (Ralph Fiennes), whose plane was shot down in the Sahara by the Germans a few years earlier. Soon they will be joined by Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian thief with mysteriously bandaged hands who works for the Allied forces, and a Sikh demolitions expert called Kip (Naveen Andrews), who faces death each day defusing the mines the Germans have left behind.

Out of each of these uprooted characters are spun stories of love, loyalty and betrayal. But the story that hooks us first, and deepest, is that of the patient, who is not English at all but the Hungarian Count Almasy, an explorer who before the war was charting the North African desert with an international team of geographers. There he met, and fell in love with, the strong and adventurous Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the aristocratic Geoffrey Clinton (Cohn Firth).

Their adulterous affair has devastating repercussions, both personal and political. (These repercussions link the fates of Almasy and the revenge-seeking Caravaggio.) Against this all-consuming, incinerating love Minghella contrasts the other forms of love his movie explores--Hana's healing love for her patient, the refuge she and Kip find in each other's arms, Almasy's love of the desert that is threatened by the nationalistic passions of the war.

This beautifully shot (by John Scale) and intricately edited (by Walter Murch) movie takes a little time to get going. And when it's over, you may have trouble piecing together the chronology-this happened when? and that caused what? But once you're hooked, it never loses its grip on your emotions. A great deal of the credit belongs to Fiennes and Scott Thomas, who ignite on screen together. Their love scene s--torrid, well written and marvelously played- didn't exist in the novel. Minghella has a rare gift for articulating passion (especially rare in an Englishman). And in Scott Thomas he has an actress who seems supremely worthy of Almasy's rabid devotion, a love that turns this laconic, self-protective man half-mad with obsession.

There were some of us who never understood why Hugh Grant in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" passed up Scott Thomas for Andie MacDowell. …

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