Film Scouts Reviews

"The English Patient"

by Karen Jaehne

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November 15. 1996

Written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Based on the book by the same name by Michael Ondaatje. Produced by Saul Zaentz. Cinematography by John Seale. Costume design by Ann Roth. Edited by Walter Murch.

Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Count von Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip).

Call it "Gone With the Sand." A love story that can't help but take you by surprise, "The English Patient" is actually two love stories: one in the decadent cauldron of 1930s Cairo and the other in the desperation of Italy at the end of WWII. They intersect in the body of the "english patient," who isn't really English. Or patient.

Kristin Scott Thomas has never been as lush and desirable as in the role of Katharine, a woman crashing the company of explorers of the Arabian Desert.

And Juliette Binoche's acting has never been better. Avoiding the sultry femme fatale mannerisms that mark her career, she gives a straightforward performance as a nurse tending the English patient and rediscovering her joie-de-vivre in renaissance art.

Ralph Fiennes is utterly convincing as the swashbuckling Hungarian explorer, a man among men who is felled by another man's wife. He never camps it up. And his performance as the misshapen English patient is instant Oscar material.

Most noteworthy about the entire film is our sincere and complete investment in these very romantic worlds - which have been exploited in other films. When you see a group of men in tuxedos being waited on by men in fezes, surrounded by ladies in the kind of lingerie that passes for evening gowns, you start thinking of Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" and campy versions of "Lawrence of Arabia." Thank god the movie has its own strength and behaves as if this were our very first excursion into the endless sands of northern Africa.

The basic theme of the film involves cartography - the mapping of the shifting sands - an obviously humongous enterprise that is decimated by the outbreak of WWII. The idea of the grid that holds down the land finds its counterpoint in Italy after the War, where the Germans have laced the Gothic villages with land mines and bombs that threaten to blow up in our faces at every turning point. Our character Kip, the Indian actor Naveen Andrews, brings as much intensity to his unlacing, defusing and liberating of Italy as he brings to freeing Hana the nurse.

The extraordinary story departs so radically from the novel as to borrow its characters and create a plot, simply incorporating the themes of the book. It is actually two love stories - the sacred and profane. The nurse's devotion to the English patient reflects on a pure and worthy kind of love. Their story is even reinforced by their existence in a ruined palazzo surrounded by books and a nearby medieval village. Everything in Cairo is profane, and yet the love story that sprouts up between Katharine and the Count is irresistible - and it draws us into its tale of desire and destruction.

If you don't walk out of this movie asking your companion, "Would you walk five days through the desert to rescue me from a cave?" - well, your heart has been pickled in too many movies. Great love was never so great.

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