The English Patient

on November 15, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   "I am a bit of toast, my friend," an Allied interrogator is told by Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian-born linguist and explorer who now has been reduced by flames--of a Saharan plane crash's fires and a desert romance's disastrous fervors--to a dying creature referred to as the English patient. The time is World War II; the place is Italy. Suspected of being a German collaborator, Almasy claims he can remember nothing, including his name. As a French-Canadian nurse, Hana (an underused Juliette Binoche), ministers to him in an abandoned Tuscan monastery, reading to her patient from a book of Herodotus he clutches, his tale--beginning in prewar North Africa, among a cartographic expedition by England's Royal Geographic Society--is revealed.
   Four people are involved: Almasy; an aristocratic English couple, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas)--"we were practically brother and sister before we were man and wife," says aviator Geoffrey, having known his painter wife since age 3--who apprentice themselves to this self-dubbed International Sand Club; and, in Cairo, a Canadian thief named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) spying for the English as war with Germany nears. Through a crisscross of events, involving Almasy and the married couple in a web of adultery and Almasy and Caravaggio on opposite ends of intrigue, all four come to death or dismemberment.
   What "The English Patient," based on Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel, becomes in its long (159-minute), $33 million telling is both more and less than a bodice buster. It's more, in the sense that the work has a veneer of cosmopolitan culture and learned intelligence and a dappling here and there of symbolism; less, in the sense that the central romance between Almasy and Katharine remains subdued below bodice-busting proportions. If one were to delete the exoticism of the romance's era and locale, their affair would be revealed as quite ordinary: They meet, they hesitate, they give in, they break apart. Even the film's attempts at poetry--"the heart is an organ of fire," Almasy writes in his Herodotus as marginalia, which when read aloud by Hana is played as affecting her deeply--come across more as poetasty.
   The actors are world-class but, held back by a you-know-what's-next adaptation by filmmaker Anthony Minghella ("Truly, Madly, Deeply"), turn in regional-level performances. Fiennes is best at capturing his English patient's wheeze, less good at sculpting a consistent personality as the supposed loner whose solitude is cracked open by beauty. As the beauty, Scott Thomas is that, and cultured, but she lacks the haunted quality her character needs to explain her infidelity. The scenes provided Firth, superb in the BBC's recent "Pride and Prejudice," similarly don't let him create an unvarying persona; the confusing result is part milquetoast, part crafter of espionage. Although Hana gets to do a little suffering when another wartime love dies ("I'm in love with ghosts") and later develops a counterbalancing happy romance with a Sikh bomb disposal expert (Naveen Andrews), Binoche's main purpose is simply as a literary device, allowing the film a reason to flash back on its key events. Only Dafoe's Caravaggio hangs together, despite aspects of melodrama.
   Footage under the opening credits shows a hand slowly drawing human shapes on parchment, and Minghella throughout retains that watching-paint-dry pace. For a film produced by Saul Zaentz, Oscar winner for "Amadeus," "The English Patient" seems thin; one fundamental missing here is theme--there's no moment like that when Salieri looks through a page of Mozart's musical notes straight into the divine. In place of a moral are just motifs. Still, the intoxications provided by the lush cinematography by John Seale (Oscar-nom'd for "Witness" and "Rain Man"), the foreign settings and the players' innate magnetisms combine to make "The English Patient" never seem long or close to boring. But it remains resolutely short on passion and meaning. At film's end, when an exiting Hana looks back on the monastery that has been the film's locus, one thinks not on what has been learned and lost, but just on the ruin's picturesequeness. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth. Directed and written by Anthony Minghella. Produced by Saul Zaentz. A Miramax release. Romance. Rated R for sexuality, some violence and language. Running time: 159 min. Opens 11/15 NY/LA
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