Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.
Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.
But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.
Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.
It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.
It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.
Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.
The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.
Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.
The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.