The English Patient: Synopsis

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The heart is an organ of fire...

Count Laszlo de Almásy

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 one.

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 in common.

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.

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