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'The English Patient': A Fever Pitch

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1996

The comfort of shadows, the sobbing of horns, the plumness of plums: "The English Patient" celebrates sensuality, finding worth in both pleasure and pain.

The result is completely intoxicating.

Here is an epic romance that delves into the terrible incongruities of life and the inevitability of choice between virtue and passion. Sin, alas, has never been so alluring, nor sinners (Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas) so achingly gorgeous. That's the miracle of writer-director Anthony Minghella's artistry. We are taken out of ourselves.

Based on Michael Ondaatje's labyrinthine World War II novel, Minghella's sublime adaptation is less dense, but by no means less substantive. Minghella narrows the focus to the title character, whose story edges forward -- or in this case, backward -- with the arrival of fellow travelers who, like the patient, have been scarred by the war.

Set in North Africa and Italy, the film centers on an affair that's hot enough to turn the Sahara into glass. Instead, the illicit lovers, Count Laszlo de Almasy (Fiennes) and the dazzling Katharine Clifton (Thomas), are consumed by their passion.

The movie is a time warp, as mysterious as the desert and as intimate as the hollow of a woman's throat. And it is not until the final scene that we fit together the tantalizing puzzle of the opening sequence. And though the story spins out across two continents and seven years, most of it revolves around a sickbed in an abandoned monastery in Tuscany, where a shellshocked nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), has retreated with her patient (Fiennes) in the last days of the war. Bedridden because of his horrible burns, the patient no longer remembers his name, or exactly how he became this "bit of toast."

Though he is obviously a witty and well-educated man, the only tangible clue to his identity is a dogeared copy of the histories of Herodotus, filled with cryptic notes, wrinkled maps and worn photographs. Hana, who can't forget her traumatic experiences in the war, isn't hoping to restore his memories, only to distract him from his suffering when she begins to read to him. Yet the patient is immediately swept into his past on a tide of morphine and memories.

As all great films must, this one also transports the audience to another time and place: Cairo, before the war, was a glittery, champagne oasis that drew British colonials, Arab potentates and the gentlemen-adventurers of the International Sand Club. Almasy, a reserved Hungarian explorer, is leading the club on a mapmaking expedition for England's Royal Geographical Society.

Old desert hands, the explorers never cared a whit for national boundaries or the loyalties these demanded. Soon, of course, they will be asked to choose between friends and country, to join the insanity or slip away with the desert nomads. Almasy and Katharine, however, will face a more personal test, one that is made no easier by her adoring husband and childhood sweetheart (Colin Firth).

In the present, "the English patient" and his nurse are joined, first by Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a mysterious pickpocket with a taste for morphine, and then by Kip (Naveen Andrews), an earnest Sikh lieutenant who specializes in defusing bombs. The characters add more suspense to the plot and, in Caravaggio's case, force the patient to burrow deeper into his past pain.

As the war winds down around them, Hana and Kip begin a tender affair that contrasts with the obsessive love of Almasy and Katharine. If "the heart is an organ of fire," as Almasy suggests, Hana's blaze is banked. Her love brings healing and comfort.

The monastery, so cool and airy, provides an eloquent visual contrast to the sweeping vistas of North Africa. Photographed by John Seale ("Witness"), the grandeur of the geography equals that of "Lawrence of Arabia," just as Almasy recalls the enigmatic, obsessive T.E. Lawrence.

There are faint echoes of "Casablanca" here, too. Anyone who has ever wondered why Ilsa didn't throw over Laszlo for Rick will find the answer in the guilt and torment of Almasy and Katharine. In this crazy world, the problems of three little people amount to far more than a hill of beans. As Katharine notes, it's people who are the real nations; sadly, it's also people who must set the boundaries. Will it be loyalty or betrayal? War or peace? Pleasure or pain?

Decisions seldom come easily in "The English Patient," a tour de force so haunting that other films can't exorcise the memory of its radiant cast, exquisite craftsmanship or complex system of metaphors. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie.

The English Patient is rated R for sexuality, profanity and violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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