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"A sand-swept epic that pierces the heart," Jay Carr, The Boston Globe, November 22, 1996, Pg. E9.
"The English Patient" begins with a great, spellbinding image - of a vintage prop plane's shadow passing over an undulating, seductively contoured orange desert. To see it is to be magically transported back in time and to be filled with both wonder and dread - wonder at the evocative visual poetry that is still the province of film, dread at the odds against the rest of the film living up to the power of that image. But while the plane comes down, the film, almost miraculously, stays aloft. It gambles big, and it wins big. Not just on imagery - although its images are breath-stopping. "The Sheltering Sky," after all, had desert images as glorious, yet was emotionally hollow. "The English Patient, " however, is a great epic romance. If you thought "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" was the love story of the '80s, you'll think "The English Patient" is the love story of the '90s. ....
It shuttles between prewar Egypt and a Tuscan villa turned private hospital in the final days of World War II. It takes its time, but tantalizes, drawing us in as it lays out the pieces of an increasingly enthralling puzzle. Ironically, the title character played by Ralph Fiennes is Hungarian, and although he's regarded as a hero whose plane was downed during a daring flight over German-occupied territory, the real story is more complicated. He lies swathed in what looks like cobwebs, slowly dying of burns, tended angelically by Juliette Binoche's Canadian nurse. Bit by bit, his story - the one that knits the others together - emerges. Although its ironies are cosmic, "The English Patient" is not a product of the ironic mode.
Building on the vocation that drew the diffident Hungarian to Cairo in the first place, the film takes mapmaking as its central metaphor, the charting of the heart's mysterious terrain, shifting and elusive as the dunes. Its fuel is passion, especially the passion that ignites between Fiennes' adventurer, so blind to himself that he thinks he's stoical, and Kristin Scott Thomas as the reckless sensualist Katharine, wife of a British aristocrat (Colin Firth), as comfortable in her skin as her masochistic husband is uncomfortable in his. There are other loves - Fiennes' Lawrence-like love of the Sahara before the war yanks it out from under him; the restorative, regenerative love between Binoche's nurse, fearful that every man she loves will die, and Naveen Andrews' jazz loving, beauty-loving, bomb-defusing Sikh, who takes the film to cinematic heaven in a scene with Binoche in a cathedral.
Destruction and healing - what blows up in one's face and what doesn't blow up - is part of the story too, reinforced by the arrival of Willem Dafoe's wounded spy. The film's thematic density never removes it from the primacy of the senses. It contains not only the sexiest love scene of the year but the two sexiest love scenes of the year. There's real eroticism - as opposed to the usual fabricated kind - in the rush of the two lovers to feel their bodies press together, and not just in their nude bathing scene. These love scenes are the film's most extraordinary simply because of their urgency. They aren't in the book. But as anyone who has seen screenwriter-director Anthony Minghella's "Truly, Madly, Deeply" remembers, he can make sweet intimacy come to life.
He does so most memorably in a scene so intimate it makes us feel we're intruding as Fiennes and Scott Thomas sit in a stalled jeep, becoming unmistakably aware of their mutual attraction as wind-blown sand piles up around them during a howling sirocco. The sandstorm is of course a metaphor and harbinger of what will follow.
Fiennes projects the intensity of feeling possible only to a man used to keeping his feelings to himself. We believe in his obsession with Scott Thomas' neck, in the way his face tells us he aches for her when they're apart. Katherine will come as a revelation to those who know Scott Thomas only from her roles as repressed Englishwomen. She's luminous with sensuality, made sexier by the fact that we feel the force of a keen intelligence behind her decision to take the plunge into an affair she knows will have serious consequences.
Although the film all but reinvents his novel, Ondaatje's grand design is ever present. Poignant, ravishing, sharply felt, Minghella's rich, magnificent " English Patient" is one of those rare films that transcends demographics. Its wit, sophistication and artistry never are at odds with the fundamental pull of a powerful love story that out-Zhivagos "Doctor Zhivago" because it respects love's mysteries, admits it doesn't know the heart's boundaries.
NOVEMBER 11, 1996 VOL. 148 NO. 22
RAPTURE IN THE DUNES
BY RICHARD CORLISS
From their green, damp,
congested homelands, Europeans come to the North African desert
and fall in love--as if into quicksand--with the dry vastness.
Like T.E. Lawrence, they are awed by the womanly contours of the
great desert dunes. Soon their faces are bronzed, their limbs
burnished, their hair bleached, until they are the color of sand.
These nomads-by-choice have become the Sahara.
The English Patient, the keenly rapturous film that Anthony Minghella has made of Michael Ondaatje's novel, burrows into these feelings even as it flies above them like a plane full of surveyors. This is a big film, serious and voluptuous. It hopscotches through time, from 1937 to 1944, and over two continents. It probes issues of betrayal and forgiveness. It borrows Lawrence of Arabia's epic intellect for a tale of potent romance. But its sophistication never obscures the story, which is as charged as the North African adulteries in Casablanca and The Sheltering Sky. Here is an Englishwoman who tells her man, "I've always loved you." And here is a Hungarian count who vows, "I promise I'll never leave you."
He is not English, this Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), nor is he at all patient. But those are the words on his medical papers when, scorched and disfigured, he comes under the care of a Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) in Italy at the end of World War II.....
Through flashbacks we see what Almasy is trying to remember--or trying to keep others from discovering. Brilliant and aloof, commanding many languages, he was part of a British cartography expedition in the Sahara. There he meets Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the cool, sure wife of a member of the team. Almasy is aroused and troubled by Katharine; even dancing, he stalks her furtively, as if she's not supposed to know she's in his arms. Almasy, a hoarder of his own secrets, may want to possess but not be known; Katharine may be tired of her cheery husband (Colin Firth), and she's itchy to return to her seaside home. None of this matters when they fall in love.
Most films, as they ravel their stories, narrow their focus to two or three central characters. The English Patient, though, expands its field of vision to embrace the impromptu communities around Almasy--notably Hana and her Sikh lover Kip (Naveen Andrews). They re-enact, with less melodrama, the arc of Almasy and Katharine's desperate affair. Almasy wants his love to flee in a plane; Kip sends Hana soaring on pulleys into the clerestory of the monastery chapel. Up there with the heavenly murals: Kip knows that's where this pensive angel belongs.
The English Patient is up there with Hana. Minghella, a British playwright whose first film (Truly Madly Deeply) was also about love beyond death, gives care to the segue of image and sound from one scene to the next, to the performers' intonations and gazes, to snatches of dialogue--say, a phrase as glancing as "Yes. Absolutely"--that may echo an hour later to haunt the characters.
The film is, in an old phrase, beyond gorgeous: a feast whose splendor serves Almasy complex passions. The cast is superb: Binoche, with her thin, seraphic smile; Scott Thomas, aware of the spell she casts but not flaunting it; Fiennes, especially, radiating sexy mystery, threat shrouded in hauteur. Doom and drive rarely have so much stately star quality.
All year we've seen mirages of good films. Here is the real thing. To transport picturegoers to a unique place in the glare of the earth, in the darkness of the heart--this, you realize with a gasp of joy, is what movies can do.