The English Patient
1996, R, 162 min. Directed by Anthony Minghella. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 22, 1996
Based on the Booker Award-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient is a lush, sprawling epic about romantic betrayal and redemption set against the backdrop of North Africa and Italy before and during World War II. At just under three hours, there's plenty of sandblown eroticism to go around, but, comfortingly, director Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) never lets the film (or the audience) get bogged down in panoramic crane shots and gorgeous sunsets. Fiennes is uncanny as the titular patient, a man who is found beside the wreckage of his plane in the gritty dunes of Northern Africa. Burned beyond recognition and with no memory of his name or existence before the crash, he is found and cared for by a group of nomads who eventually place him in the hands of Hana (Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse with some grievous emotional scars of her own. At this point in The English Patient's decidedly non-linear story line, the war is just ending, and Hana moves her disfigured charge into an abandoned monastery in Tuscany, where she can care for the mysterious man and nurse her own wounds in solitude. Into this picture wanders Caravaggio (Dafoe), a Canadian soldier who says he's been recruited to help disarm the local partisans. The truth of his arrival appears to be a bit more shady; he stares at the English patient for long periods, picking away at his faulty memory as if it were as easy to peel away as the countless layers of scar tissue that surround the man. Concurrent with this Tuscan interlude is the film's backstory, seen in flashbacks, which chronicles the forbidden love between a brilliant, solitary royal cartographer working in North Africa (Fiennes, sans makeup) and the wife of another member of the Royal Cartographic team (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Gradually, Minghella draws these seemingly unrelated strands together into a skein of bitter loss and hopeful redemption. Any synopsis will fail to do this magnificently complex film justice, and repeated viewings may well be in order -- it's simply that emotionally resonant. Suffice to say, The English Patient is operating on any number of levels throughout. Subtextually, the film is like some enormous cinematic onion, ripe with the promise of hidden meaning for anyone who cares to look. Films this rewarding are rare enough these days. Films this rewarding with casts this good have, in recent years, been more or less the sole property of the Merchant-Ivory conglomerate. The entire cast is electrifying, with Fiennes guaranteed a nod (at the very least) come Oscar time. His Count de Almásy is a rich, eminently watchable creation, and Binoche, Dafoe, and Scott Thomas match his prowess every horrifically romantic step of the way. Despite its lengthy running time and occasionally languid pace, The English Patient feels brief and dreamlike. Waking from its spell, you touch your face, and it's wet, but you're smiling anyway.