The English Patient

picture-of-kristin-scott-thomas-in-the-english-patient-1996--large-pictureThere seems to be no middle ground with Michael Ondaatje’s popular novel The English Patient: either you can’t put it down, or you put it down after two pages and never pick it up again. As someone in the latter group, I was still eager to see the film version. Often, the most compulsively readable books become unwatchable movies (Sleepers), while the most wildly unreadable books blossom into enthralling cinema (Naked Lunch).

Writer-director Anthony Minghella’s film of The English Patient makes me want to take another crack at the book. I’ve read that Minghella is faithful to Ondaatje’s plot and time-hopping narrative, and he has found visual equivalents of the famously luscious prose that hooked so many readers (and stood between me and the story). The mysteries and surprises are still there (I will reveal none), but the romance is more central.

At its core, this is the story of a man who risks everything and loses it. We meet the “English patient” of the title (Ralph Fiennes), burned almost beyond recognition after his plane is shot down in the North African desert during World War II. In the last days of the war, he is tended in a wrecked monastery by the kindly nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). He says he remembers nothing; his frequent flashbacks prove otherwise.

The patient, it turns out, is a Hungarian count named Almásy. Before the war, Almásy works with British cartographers mapping the sands of the Sahara. There he meets the alluring but married Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). A howling sandstorm finds them cooped up tight in a jeep; it’s the start of a beautiful relationship, and a neat metaphor for the way their lives will continue to be sand-blasted by the fates.

Half of the movie is Almásy’s bed-ridden reverie, and I expected the nurse Hana to fall in love with her scarred but yearning patient, competing with Katharine’s memory. Not so. Instead, Hana finds love with the sensitive mine-patroller Kip (Naveen Andrews), and Willem Dafoe turns up as a saturnine thief who warns Hana not to put a halo on Almásy any time soon.

Minghella, best known for the honestly moving Truly Madly Deeply, doesn’t shy away from overwhelming romance; he runs toward it with a clear head. And clear eyes: photographed by John Seale, this is easily the most ravishing film of the year. The sand seems to drench the actors in deep golden light; the sky is a rich, muted blue, like a still and suspended sea.

If there’s a flaw, it lies with Binoche, a capable but rather opaque actress (as she was in Blue). Otherwise, the cast is impeccable. Kristin Scott Thomas finally gets the major role she deserves, and she plays it eagerly and elegantly. Ralph Fiennes, playing both an evasive, obsessed lover and a shattered wreck of a man, powerfully fuses Almásy’s past and present. Almásy thinks he can read anything: foreign languages, maps, Herodotus, people. What he can’t read, tragically, is himself. And in the end he is a map of scars read by Hana. Some would credit Ondaatje for the compelling story. Duly noted. But praise is equally due Anthony Minghella for making it a fine movie.

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