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'English Patient': Love Is the Drug

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1996

A bedouin, festooned like a marionette with tinkling, ointment bottles, tends to a charred man in the desert.Two biplanes soar above the brown, wavy dunes of the Sahara. A nurse is greeted with a trail of strategically placed, burning candles, which leads her to a lover waiting patiently in the dark. These are just a few of the intoxicating moments in "The English Patient," Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel. Awash in heart-rending emotions and gorgeous images, this is a movie to lose yourself in.

The charred man (Ralph Fiennes) is the "English patient" of the title. The unidentified survivor of a plane crash in World War II, he has been found in the North African desert, his skin a mass of fleshy parchment, his memory a thing of the past. Turned over to the allies, he’s taken into custody by a medical convoy in Italy. But because of his hopeless condition, he’s essentially left to die in a deserted monastery in Tuscany, under the care of Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse with emotional ghosts of her own.

As Hana supplies him with morphine shots and reads extracts from his copy of Herodotus, the patient slowly uncovers his buried memories. He’s helped by the book -- his only possession -- which contains significant letters, maps, postcards, drawings and photographs from his past.

We learn soon enough that the "English" patient actually is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a Hungarian linguist and explorer, who was assigned to North Africa as a map-maker for the Royal Geographic Society. Among his colleagues were the vivacious, brilliant Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth), a British aristocrat. It becomes apparent that Almasy fell in love with Katherine and had a passionate affair with her.

But there’s more to the story: Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a professional thief who has been hired to disarm the Italian partisans, moves into the monastery and recognizes Almasy. It seems that Caravaggio’s recent past, a painful one, has a lot to do with the supine burn victim.

There is another significant development at the monastery: the growing relationship between Hana and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh lieutenant in the British army, whose daily job is to locate and eliminate hidden mines left behind by the retreating Germans.

"The English Patient," which unfolds with elliptical, dreamlike exposition, peels away the layers of mystery surrounding Almasy, as it adds layers of romance between Hana and Kip. The past is cross-pollinated intriguingly with the present.

The relationship between Almasy and Hana is tender and engaging. So is the Hana-Kip affair. But the African flashbacks are the real heart of the movie. Almasy (seen before his disfiguring accident) and Katherine blend together in the movie equivalent of a glowing dream.

"When were you most happy?" asks Almasy, washing the hair of his lover as she sits in the bath.

"Now," she replies.

"When were you least happy?" he asks.

"Now," she answers again.

In the mesmeric context of the movie -- the result, in large part, of John Seale’s burnished-yellow cinematography, Stuart Craig’s exotic set design and Gabriel Yared’s haunting score -- these exchanges come across as divine. Every gesture between the lovers feels graceful, luxurious and textured.

As to the burning question of how much the movie reflects the book, Minghella (in the press notes) admits to "sins of omission and commission," because he was "obliged to make transparent what was delicately oblique in the prose." But these departures from the text, he stresses, were "made in the spirit of translating [Ondaatje’s] beautiful novel to the screen."

Naturally, the depth of information about each character is restricted -- the problem in any adaptation. Kip’s role in the movie, for example, is significantly diminished, compared to the book. But if writer-director Minghella, who worked closely with Ondaatje, has recast the book somewhat, he has preserved its emotional elements. With his first work, "Truly, Madly, Deeply," a sort of thinking person’s "Ghost," he delicately traced the anguish of love between two lovers separated by death. Here, he returns to the unfathomable mysteries of doomed love and goes several, heady steps beyond.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (R) — Contains sexual situations, nudity and scenes of violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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