Long, involving and rather parched emotionally, “The English Patient” is a respectable, intelligent but less than stirring adaptation of an imposingly dense and layered novel. Set against the stunning backdrops of pre-war North Africa and the end of hostilities in Italy, this detailed, time-jumping study of the intertwined fates of several of battle’s victims carries the prestige to be a strong attraction for upscale audiences, and Miramax can be counted upon to try to push it as far into the mainstream as possible.
A story about loyalty, personal betrayal, healing and unexpected passion and attachments, among many other things, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning 1992 novel has to be one of the most difficult books undertaken for screen translation in recent years. All the artistic elements have been assembled with great care by producer Saul Zaentz in an attempt to give the film its best shot, with a result that commands serious consideration.
All the same, film has been nudged in the direction of fairly conventional adulterous melodrama, even as the characters’ British reserve keeps the central romance somewhat emotionally restrained. Predominant impression is one of a highly cerebral yarn fraught with ironies, a drama of exceptional people whose fates are played out as a sideshow to sweeping historical events.
Action begins with a spectacular, fiery plane crash in the desert, after which the scorched survivor and title character (Ralph Fiennes) is tended to by Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) in the ruins of a Tuscan monastery. Having lost her closest friend and seen so many others die during World War II, Hana insists upon remaining behind with her one hopelessly impaired patient even as the Allies head north, needing to channel her attentions into one person and possibly find some solace in the process.
But they don’t remain alone for long, as another Canadian, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), turns up and shortly displays an interest both in the morphine with which Hana regularly injects her patient and in the latter’s mysterious activities in North Africa, where something horrible has happened to Caravaggio. Subsequent tenants at the monastery come to include two bomb-disposal experts: Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh serving in the British Army, and his partner, Sgt. Hardy (Kevin Whately), who must contend with the many mines left in the area by Germans.
In intriguing flashbacks that unfurl slowly like the opening of a scroll, the English patient’s strange and ultimately traumatic tale is revealed. In fact, he is not English at all, but a Hungarian named Count Laszlo de Almasy, a dashingly attractive but detached young man based in Cairo in 1938 helping make maps of uncharted desert areas for the British. His aloofness is broken, however, by the arrival of two young Brits, newlyweds Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas).
Resist their mutual attraction as they may, Almasy and Katharine are ultimately stranded together in the desert in a way that makes their affair inevitable, and it becomes reckless, all-consuming and destructive to themselves and others in their circle. As their liaison carries over into wartime and Geoffrey’s jealousy moves him to strike back in a shocking way, Almasy and Katharine once again are left alone in the Sahara, triggering the final desperate phase of their doomed liaison.
Through it all are interlaced Caravaggio’s inquiry into what he suspects was Almasy’s responsibility for his capture and torture by the Nazis at Tobruk, as well as Hana’s life-brightening fling with Kip, the lightness and innocence of which contrasts markedly with the paralleled passion of Almasy and Katharine.
In adapting the novel, writer-director Anthony Minghella has understandably moved the major romance much more to the center in an attempt to give the tale a more emotional core. In movie terms, this is correct in theory, but the film is nonetheless stymied by the extreme recessiveness of Almasy, who is meant to be a mystery man but remains all but impossible to connect with as a romantic lead.
This puts enormous pressure on Fiennes, whose looks and demeanor give the strangely motivated man a definite allure but who can’t reveal Almasy’s heart. While Fiennes’ performance is clearly operating on the notion of less is more, his character remains at a remove, making the film come across more as a clinical study of a complicated life and romance rather than a deeply felt expression of it.
As his partner, Scott Thomas gets the chance to be more outgoing, and the actress’s customary sharp intelligence and provocatively direct manner are in full working order in her portrayal of a bold woman whose foolish fearlessness trips her up.
It is in the Italian end of the story that some of the characters are rather shortchanged. The novel’s Hana is a considerably more haunted figure than the one here, but Binoche’s warm, inviting presence represents fair exchange and provides the picture with its most accessible characterization. Dafoe’s embittered ex-thief is a strong, if fairly one-dimensional, force. But by far the most reduced character is Kip, a fascinating and highly complex personage in the novel but here shoved to the side in a way that seems almost insulting.
With its exotic, tapestry-like backgrounds, this is a picture of resplendently textured, sensuous surfaces, beginning with the sunbaked Tunisian desert and filled out by many striking locations, sets by production designer Stuart Craig and costumes by Ann Roth. John Seale’s lensing handsomely captures these physical attributes, as well as those of the terribly good-looking actors, although he often places the thesps’ faces in annoying shadows and darkness when rich light lies just behind, creating an unduly soft look.
Pic feels, and is, long, but Walter Murch’s editing keeps the story’s diverse elements in admirably judged balance. Minghella has decided to reveal certain key story elements early on, thereby reducing some suspense and intrigue, and has made most of the characters’ motivations more straightforward than they were on the page, and these moves are certainly open to debate by critics and audiences. Motive for doing so was obviously increased clarity and accessibility; while this has been achieved, up to a point, the story still remains somewhat obscured by the desert’s shifting sands and the character’s hard-to-reach hearts.