Strangers come together, things fall apart, repairs are made: The haunting arc of ‘The English Patient’

February 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 18, 2014

The English Patient is a complex tale of passion and betrayal set before the start of and near the end of World War II.

The 1992 Booker Prize–winning novel by Canadian novel Michael Ondaatje deftly interweaves two stories. In one, a Canadian nurse named Hana commandeers an abandoned Italian monastery as the war winds down to care for her dying patient, the eponymous character, who is supposedly amnesiac. The isolated outpost attracts a variety of characters — notably a thief with the unlikely name of David Caravaggio and a British soldier with the almost-as-unlikely name of Kip Singh.

The other story, set before the war, begins when an English couple joins an archaeological expedition in the Sahara Desert. The intense, brusque Laszlo de Almásy, a Hungarian count, and the urbane, adventurous Katharine Clifton find themselves drawn to one another. This love affair is slow to begin; when the illicit romance unravels, so does Almásy. As war breaks out, mirroring the conflicts in the love triangle, the fates of the three lovers are turn out to have deadly consequences for countless thousands of people.

Eventually we come to learn the identity of the English patient — in earlier times, it’s soon clear, he was one of the men competing for Katharine Clifton’s attention — and how heavy an emotional burden he carries. The dying man’s story is devastating and tragic; so are those of the other members of the doomed triangle. And yet the novel also strikes a strangely hopeful note.

This complex tale was filmed, to brilliant effect, in 1996 by the late English director Anthony Minghella, who adapted Ondaatje’s novel for the screen. The movie won nine Academy Awards — best picture, best director, best supporting actress (Juliette Binoche as Hana), best cinematography (John Seale), best art direction (Stuart Craig and Stephenie McMillan), best costume design (Ann Roth), best original score (Gabriel Yared), best film editing (Walter Murch) and best sound (Murch and three others).

I approached this movie in a rather roundabout way. Perhaps four years ago, I read and loved Ondaatje’s book. At some point in that general time frame, I also bought the movie soundtrack, which has a superb mix of original and period music. (Perhaps the best of these is Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Cheek to Cheek.”) Some time ago — two years? several months — I picked up a DVD of the film itself.

I was, however, somewhat reluctant to screen the film, for two reasons. One is that it’s two hours and 22 minutes long, a substantial length of time. Another is that I knew it tells a story that is both intense and intensely sad.

When I finally viewed the movie last week, I found this to be true. Watching The English Patient is a disturbing experience. But it’s also a thoroughly rewarding one.

The narrative of the desert explorers is beautiful and very sad. Anyone who views the movie won’t soon forget the fates of Almásy (Ralphe Fiennes), Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) or Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth). This star-crossed North African love triangle forms the true heart of The English Patient.

But the tale of the refugees in the Italian countryside is important, despite lacking the emotional heft and impact of its counterpart. For just as the desert explorers’ doings reflect the process of civilization tearing itself apart, the monastery’s residents activities show how society rebuilds itself.

The abandoned property is transformed by Hana into strange hybrid of hospital (with a single terminal patient) and home (with an oddball collection of people). She makes some repairs, plants a garden, cooks meals for herself and her charges, and reads her patient to sleep.

The men who enter Hana’s orbit are similarly dedicated to helping to restore normalcy. Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a self-confessed thief, has been asked by the Allies to help disarm partisan fighters in the Italian hill country. Lt. Singh and his deputy, Sgt. Hardy (Kevin Whately), are demolitions experts, responsible for finding and disabling the numerous bombs and booby traps that Nazi soldiers have scattered liberally in their wake.

Theirs is no small job. Mines explode a few times during the film, with heart-breaking effects on each occasion. One of the movie’s most harrowing sequences involves a huge unexploded bomb that Singh and Hardy struggle to render inert. Each failure is a belated reminder of the grim toll of war; each success is small step toward rebuilding peacetime civilization.

Caravaggio, alas, is the least convincing character in the narrative — less fully realized even than Hardy, who gets significantly less screen time. I think this is because Caravaggio’s main function is to prod the dying man into revealing his secrets. Everyone in the story experiences growth or loss, including the thief, but Caravaggio’s tale seems rather an afterthought.

This is a flaw, yes, but it’s a forgivable one in the context of the movie’s ambition and triumphs. The English Patient is a truly haunting and wonderful movie about romance and war.

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