Anthony Minghella believes in ghosts -- and, at his best, makes believers out of viewers, too. The writer/director of Truly Madly Deeply and this heartfelt, eye-filling (but problematic) adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient salts his movies with passionate specters. In Truly Madly Deeply the main ghost was a musician who persuades his lover that the living must go on living, and the dead must go on after-living. In The English Patient, the main ghost is the title character (Ralph Fiennes), an amnesiac massive-burn victim spending his final days in a bombed-out Italian monastery near the end of the Second World War. Although literally he's alive, he says, "I died years ago," and registers vividly as a ghost in every way, from his macabre lacework of scars to his feeling that he's gone from earth. Under the spell of morphine and the prodding of a bitter Allied agent named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who had his thumbs shorn by the Nazis, he begins to spill out memories of a different time and place: the North African desert of the '30s, home-away-from-home for a chivalrous cadre of explorers jocularly nicknamed "the International Sand Club."
As the movie cascades between the patient's new Gothic environment and his flashbacks of Cairo and the sands beyond, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French Canadian nurse, becomes his dedicated friend -- despite her belief that everyone who loves her dies. Hana says, "I'm in love with ghosts. So is he. He's in love with ghosts." Before long she falls in love with a real live "sapper" (bomb disposal expert) from India -- a Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews) -- who also develops a comfy palship with the burned man (they banter about Kipling). Caravaggio, who suspects and confirms the worst of the patient's past, finds they share a surprising affinity. Facing up to his tragic, tortured history, the patient functions as the musician did in Truly Madly Deeply: He goads the grief-stricken survivors into accepting their unruly lives.
If this transit provides the dramatic arc of The English Patient, its emotional core comes from Minghella's inspired handling of the molten love story that bubbles up in the background. It turns out that the patient isn't English at all, but the Hungarian count Laszlo de Almasy (in the book his first name's Ladislaus), and that he wound up broken and incinerated because of his romantic devotion to a brilliant, married Brit, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). What's more, the amorous tribulation ensnared him in a skein of betrayal. Katherine's husband, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth), was a fellow member of the International Sand Club and a British operative. Like Michael Ondaatje, the author of the original novel, Minghella gives us an old theme with a modern twist: Not only is war hell, but the devils who propel it switch from side to side.
In his skillful adaptation, Minghella manages to conjure the effect of the book's sharp detail while compressing the narrative. In the opening shots a brush paints prehistoric swimmers on what could be parchment or a wall, and a man and a woman fly in a two-seater plane over the undulating desert sand. Minghella creates an atmosphere thick with poetic and erotic suggestion. With a fabulist's instinct, he sustains that atmosphere even when the story turns plodding or tricky, or when its message obtrudes. Perhaps the clearest example of what's wrong with the original material is an episode Minghella wisely cut. In Ondaatje's novel, Kip and Hana are having an idyllic affair until he hears a radio report that the U.S. bombed Hiroshima; the Sikh sapper turns his back on her (and his new European and American friends) out of Asian solidarity. It's an absurd twist on every level, from the individual (there's no prior sign of discord) to the political (what country did more to wreck Asia than Axis Japan?). But it caps a strain of sentimentality that runs throughout the novel's view of politics and relationships.
Ondaatje's vision of nationalism sabotaging human bonds makes it into the movie, albeit in more deft ways. The International Sand Club -- the men who gather with Almasy to chart the Egyptian-Libyan desert and explore vanished worlds -- forms a utopian vision of international cooperation; that 20th-century warrior states covet the club's maps is achingly ironic. But when Almasy and his friends wind up on opposite ends of an epochal world crisis, it's too easy for a novelist or filmmaker to blame the big bad forces of nationalism without demystifying the explorers' own arrogant complacency and naivete. It should be jarring -- no, harrowing -- for us to root for anyone who satisfies personal desires no matter the public consequences, to the extent of cooperating with Nazis. Yet the movie, like the book, ultimately dashes chaos and guilt away in a fervid romanticism. It's a whitewash job done with sperm.
Storybook writer Ondaatje is lucky in his adapter, because Minghella is a storybook moviemaker -- indeed, he wrote all the episodes of the Emmy award-winning Jim Henson's The Storyteller. The magic hour is Minghella's metier, whether it marks the twilight of a life or a day; no one is better at the limbo rock. There's an expressive otherworldliness to the fleeting shots of the Bedouins tending to Almasy; they cover his face with a mask of plaited palms that both makes him seem a primordial tribesman and fractures his view of the universe. At least Almasy knows that he reached Paradise in the arms of Katherine. And as Katherine, Thomas fills the screen with her brainy sensuality -- after stealing Angels and Insects just a few months ago in the role of a supposed plain-Jane.
The film's editor, Walter Murch, must have collaborated closely with Minghella on the movie's graceful, intuitive transitions between past and present; these cement the connections made in the script between distant sounds and sights. Along with cinematographer (and camera operator) John Seale, a virtuoso of vistas and filigree, they create a marvelous rag-and-bottle shop of the mind with the story's tactile elements: tinkling morphine cylinders and a Bedouin healer's clanking glass jars; a bracelet worn by one of Hana's dead friends and a thimble Katherine transforms into a necklace.
Murch has written that one of the tasks of an editor is extending the rhythms of a good actor "into territory not covered by the actor himself." So his peak contribution may have been the exquisite showcase Minghella provides for Thomas. From the moment Katherine steps down from her plane into the desert, Thomas evinces a vitality that puts everyone around her on a joyous red alert. Even Fiennes's glowering Almasy perks up in her presence. It's futile for him to use his courtly distance as a shield against sexual attraction, so his aristocratic dourness takes on a comic edge. When they're thrown together during a sandstorm, and Almasy, unable to resist flirtation, recites a litany of fabled winds, his change is gratifying in an old-Hollywood way -- the woman next to me sighed and asked, "Why is he so cute all of a sudden?" Well, it's partly because of Thomas, who brings a complete carnal consciousness to the erotic scenes, which are full of torment as well as rapture. Thomas makes you believe that Katherine can hold two clashing ideas in her head and two men in her heart; when she's bathing with Almasy, and includes her husband in a list of things she loves, the feeling is tender and rueful.
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Minghella has a gift for outsize emotion. When Kip attaches Hana to a rig that sends her bobbing in the air around church frescoes, she's the embodiment of euphoria; Katherine and Almasy's tragic reunion has an epic heartbreak (too bad Gabriel Yared's inflated music mars its purity). The character of Almasy, a man's man who learns there's more danger and mystery in the indentation of a woman's neck than in a desert cave, a stiff-necked idealist whom tragedy humanizes, could become -- scar tissue and all -- a yuppie fantasy figure. His long leave-taking from Earth, and the solace of his recollected passion, will touch chords with baby boomers who've lost friends to illnesses like AIDS, or parents to age.
But this intelligent, affecting work is squishy at the core. Almasy never apologizes to a man who might have been mutilated because of his actions -- he says that nothing concerned him except Katherine. Maybe the boomers' huge pop romance Love Story had broader and more lasting influence than anyone thought. In The English Patient, too, love means never having to say you're sorry, about anything.
The English Patient.
Directed by Anthony Minghella. With Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe and Naveen Andrews.