A desperately wounded man is taken by Hana, a French-Canadian nurse (JULIETTE
BINOCHE) to a ruined monastery in Tuscany at the end of the Second World
War. Hana believes she is cursed--her traumatic experiences in the war have
convinced her that anybody she feels love for is destined to die. The shock
of the accidental death of her closest friend moves her to this act of retreat,
of leaving her colleagues and hiding in the monastery and trying to do one
thing right--to care for her patient and make his inevitable death a dignified
The patient claims to have forgotten everything, including his name, and
the only clue to his identity is the book he has with him, a copy of the
histories by Herodotus, the fifth century B.C. Greek historian--a book filled
with personal letters and drawings and maps and photographs.
A man (WILLEM DAFOE) disturbs the temporary peace of the monastery. He is
also Canadian and relishes his past as a thief, an occupation which he tells
Hana has qualified him--along with his Italian heritage--to work for the
army in disarming the local partisans. His name is Caravaggio, and like
the other two characters in the monastery he has suffered his own damage.
His hands are mysteriously covered, and he seems to have a special interest
in the morphine supply that Hana has stockpiled to care for her patient.
It soon transpires that Caravaggio has also been in North Africa. This is
where the English patient was shot down. They appear to have many things
Hana begins to read to her patient from his copy of Herodotus. The book
has a potent effect. In the manner of the madeleine cakes which enable the
hero of Proust's "Remembrances of Things Past" to recapture lost
time, it seems that merely opening the book and glancing at its pages and
cuttings, transports the patient--involuntarily--to his past as an explorer
in the Sahara.
It emerges that the patient was a prominent member of a prewar expedition
making maps of the hitherto uncharted deserts--an international group from
England's Royal Geographical Society. Into the midst of this group come
a young English couple, Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton (COLIN FIRTH, KRISTIN
SCOTT THOMAS), an aristocratic pair recently wed. He's a bright and charming
aviation enthusiast; Katharine is a scholar and a painter, a woman without
fear. They become enthusiastic apprentices to the International Sand Club
(as the expeditionary team have dubbed themselves). The team is led by Count
Laszlo de Almásy (RALPH FIENNES), an Hungarian who is a noted linguist
and explorer, and his partner Peter Madox (JULIAN WADHAM). These two are
pioneering motorized exploration--by plane and car--of the deepest regions
of the Sahara.
The arrival of the Cliftons has a profound effect on Almásy. He is
by nature a loner, private and indifferent to the social complexities of
Cairo and its elaborate colonial life. But what makes him compulsive in
his drive to explore the desert also informs the overwhelming attraction
he develops for Katherine. They both try to resist their feelings, but it's
as if events conspire to bring them together. They are unwilling hostages
to their desire until an accident in the desert finds them stranded alone,
and they begin a passionate, intensely erotic affair which has catastrophic
consequences for them both and for all those around them. The unraveling
of their passion and its impact on Katherine's husband is intrinsically
connected to public events surrounding them, with Europe plunging into war,
with friendships which never have abided by frontiers having suddenly to
deal with the artificial boundaries of nationality, as Englishman is pitted
against German, colleague against colleague. "Betrayals in war,"
writes Almásy in his copy of Herodotus, "are childlike compared
with our betrayals during peace. New lovers are nervous and tender, but
smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire."
How the patient received his terrible injuries, how Katherine and Geoffrey
Clifton lost their lives, what became of the maps created by the Expedition
Team and whose contents have a significant role to play in the Desert War,
what happened to Caravaggio's hands to reduce him to a morphine addict intent
on revenge form the heart of the story in the Desert--a tragic counterpoint
to the healing relationships in the monastery.
In Tuscany, the war is ending. Kip, a Sikh bomb disposal expert (NAVEEN
ANDREWS) arrives with his team to begin the process of making safe the ravaged
countryside where thousands of mines and unexploded bombs lie dormant, liable
to detonate at any time. Kip and his partner Sgt. Hardy (KEVIN WHATELY)
move into the monastery garden. Hana finds solace in Kip, in his reserve,
in his gentleness. They love like children--safe and tender. It couldn't
be more different from the catastrophic abandon of Almásy and Katherine.
Hana's only fear is that her feeling for Kip will make him subject to her
curse. A death does come between them, as death comes between all the characters
in the story. But what happens is also restorative. Hana is able to move
on, just as Caravaggio--in the process of discovering the truth of Almásy's
alleged betrayal--finds his own peace and future. As for the patient--in
telling his story, in finally confronting what has happened to him and to
the woman he tried so hard not to love and then lost everything to--his
release is to let go and join the ghosts in the cloisters.