Any filmmaker bold enough to set a romantic epic in the middle of the Sahara with war guns booming in the distance runs a pretty big risk--aside from getting all that sand in the Panaflex. For real movie lovers who've seen a few things, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia loom so large in memory that any new film that presumes to invade their space had better be damn good if it doesn't want to seem puny by comparison. Bogey and Big Larry still own the desert.
Fine, but let's find a place at the oasis for director Anthony Minghella and the gifted Dutch/Sri Lankan/Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje.
Minghella's fluent adaptation of Ondaatje's The English Patient--a swift two hours and forty minutes' worth--is that rare and wonderful thing, a rhapsodic love story with heat you can feel on your skin. It's also a tragic war drama and a spy thriller with mysteries of identity at its heart. It's impeccably acted, gorgeous to look at and exotic to behold. What more could a moviegoer expect?
Well, for one thing, a harrowing sandstorm that buries the lovers' vehicle but not their growing passion. For another, a side trip to an abandoned Italian monastery at the end of World War II, where half of the complex story unfolds via the morphine-drenched recollections of a dying man, the other half in the present lives of the survivors. In sum, this is one of the most intelligent examinations of suffering, betrayal and redemption in recent movie history.
To cases. From the moment a silver biplane is shot down by wartime partisans over the shadowy dunes, Minghella and Ondaatje cast a dark spell. Who is this pilot, the mysterious "English patient" of the title, who has been gruesomely burned in the crash? Who is his beautiful passenger? In time--moving backward and forward--they are eventually revealed as a displaced Hungarian adventurer called Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and a married English aristocrat named Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the central figures in a human labyrinth also inhabited by a death-haunted Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche), a shrewd, wounded thief called Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) who must rediscover his identity, and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh sapper who searches for unexploded bombs in the deceptively beautiful Italian countryside.
As Almasy painfully recalls a fateful archaeological expedition to the Sahara in the days before the war, we come to see that The English Patient is, among other things, about the burden of dreams and the endurance of passion. If Ondaatje's acclaimed novel puts readers in mind of both Proust and the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms, filmmaker Minghella accomplishes no less in the retelling. Love and war and the exquisite pains of loss have rarely commingled so elegantly on the screen, and the catastrophic affair between Almasy and Katharine, re-enacted in his tormented memory, has the kind of ghostly power found only in the best literature.
In a sense, playwright-turned-moviemaker Minghella has come this way before. In Truly, Madly, Deeply--the best but least-seen romantic ghost movie of the early Nineties--a grieving widow is revisited by her dead husband, who turns out to be not only a heartbreaker but a major roadblock to her earthly future. That quirky little film, like this vast one, was driven by obsessions, dark dreams and regrets, but in the end, it, too, settled on a kind of moral peace. Little wonder, then, that upon discovering Ondaatje's novel, Minghella read it "in a single gulp" and became a bit obsessed himself with filming it.
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In an era of processed lust and nickel-and-dime romance--the era of Jackie Collins's trash fiction and the identical movies of the week--it's as great a joy to encounter profound sorrow as it is real love. The haunted characters of The English Patient are suffused with both, and the splendid cast couldn't be better. For a while there, it looked as though Britain's Ralph Fiennes couldn't free himself from the vicious SS commandant he portrayed so frighteningly in Schindler's List, but if his Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show didn't do the trick, the vaguely Lawrentian desert explorer he now gives us should. By turns arrogant and poetic, brave and ravaged, he may, with his agonized dreams and the memory-stuffed volume of Herodotus he keeps at his bedside, be the movie year's most vivid presence.
Barely less so is Scott Thomas's Katharine, whose tresses suggest the golden light of the desert floor itself and whose desire is as alluring as perfume. The spiteful wife of Polanski's Bitter Moon and Hugh Grant's admirer in Four Weddings and a Funeral, she's a woman for the ages here--ravishing, brilliant and flawed--and her doomed journey through love and war is one of the best things that's happened to movies since Don Vito took out the Salazzos.
So make room, Lawrence of Arabia. A new group of worthies has hit the desert.
The English Patient. Screenplay by Anthony Minghella, from a novel by Michael Ondaatje. Directed by Anthony Minghella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe and Naveen Andrews.