The English Patient

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The English Patient
"Seldom has passion felt so primed, or sex so explosive."

Illicit love scalds unwary romantics. Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) says: "The heart is an organ of fire." The inflammatory nature of his affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is too dangerous. Seldom has passion felt so primed, or sex so explosive. And yet The English Patient is not a love story. It is a death story.

Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize winning novel is supremely cinematic. The location is North Africa just before the war. Almasy and his team are drawing maps of the desert. The atmosphere is English public school, although Almasy behaves like a visiting academic who makes a point of not appreciating the jokey elitism of the self-styled Sand Club, preferring the solitude of the Sahara.

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When Clifton (Colin Firth) arrives in a biplane with Katharine, things change. He is an affable enough fellow, garrulous and good-natured. She is chic, charming and intellectually confident. Her enthusiasm and archaeological interest stirs Almasy, not that he shows it, of course - not then. She is intrigued by him, so obviously a lone wolf and unlikely to be a bridge player.

The film's structure is in two parts, with separate casts surrounding Almasy. The second, after he has crashed his plane and suffered appalling burns, represents the present in a deserted Italian monastery during the war, where Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse, who believes she is cursed because everyone she loves is killed, cares for him as an act of contrition. He is dubbed "the English patient" because he has lost his memory and speaks in an Oxford mumble. His only possession is a copy of Herodotus's History, filled with sentimental scraps. Slowly memories, as flashbacks, return and Katharine's story is revealed.

The power of the film is rooted in Minghella's poetic vision and John Seale's exquisite cinematography. Sudden narrative switches open new avenues to the imagination and act as a balance between Hana and Katharine's lives. The awareness of death, the uncertainty of hope, the absence of stability and the hunger for love reflect the cruelty, pain and anarchy of war. Somewhere something wonderful happens. Somewhere else something beautiful dies. Almasy is a creature of contradictions, a man of silences. As a heroic figure, he is driven, not by high ideals, but by rapture for another man's wife.

Fiennes demonstrates admirable containment, as if acting from the inside out, while Scott Thomas brings to Katharine something quite rare - social ease, mental agility and a loveliness that does not feed off flattery. Binoche has natural beauty that radiates from her like sunlight through broken shutters. Her spirit infuses Hana with such life and joy even Almasy, unrecognisable beneath his mask of blistered flesh ("You can't kill me. I died years ago") is touched by it.

Only Willem Dafoe, as the mysterious Caravaggio, who has suffered torture at the hands of the Nazis, feels miscast. His role has been emasculated in the adaptation, leaving him on the edge of things, in the monastery with the critically ill Almasy, not entirely welcome, stealing morphine for his habit, asking the wrong kind of questions, full of rage.

What makes The English Patient an unforgettable experience is the quality of sadness and the cinematic integrity. It took four years from first draft to final cut. Not a minute has been wasted.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2006
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Love and war expose the vulnerability of hope for a passion that seeks solitude in the desert.
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Director: Anthony Minghella

Writer: Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, Jürgen Prochnow, Kevin Whately, Clive Merrison, Nino Castelnuovo

Year: 1996

Runtime: 160 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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