(Air Date: Week Of 12/25/96)
How do you explain the appeal of a film where the hero spends half the time lying in bed, his face severely disfigured by burns? The film is The English Patient, based on the novel by Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. The movie begins in the middle of the story, as a small plane containing a dashing aviator, and a woman with a faraway look, is shot down. Little by little, we discover that the aviator is Hungarian explorer Count Laszlo de Almasy, played by Ralph Fiennes, and that he is also the bedridden English Patient at the center of the story. His memories of his impassioned, tragic love for Katherine Clifton, memorably played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, provide the events leading up to the crash, and after the crash his survival affects the lives of Hana, his nurse, played by Juliette Binoche, and Caravaggio, a mysterious stranger, played by William Dafoe. What a cast!
There's a complex, splintered structure as the action jumps between the North African desert on the eve of World War II, and the Italian countryside where the Count lies dying and reminescing in a monastery, but, thanks to Director and screenplay writer Anthony Minghella, the pieces make a coherent picture. The Count first encounters the aristocratic Katherine in the desert, when she and her husband swoop down in their plane to join his mapmaking expedition.
Katherine is confident and witty, and has a warm, comfortable relationship with her husband, whom she's known since childhood. The Count is a psychologically complex loner, but he's inexorably drawn to the spirited Katherine, while at the same time maintaining his reserve. But when they end up alone together during a brutal, overnight windstorm, the attraction builds, and they become lovers in a Cairo hotel.
During the Italian scenes, taking place in the beautifully austere monastery, removed from the war, the nurse, Hana, initially revels in the chance to peacefully nurse her patient while healing her own psychic wounds. Caravaggio arrives and disturbs the peace, questioning the identity of the patient, and suggesting that there is something sinister in his past. Then Hana falls in love with Kip, an Indian who defuses landmines, a role played by the charasmatic Naveen Andrews.
This film is memorable for the exotic desert adventure, for the beautiful, but doomed, fatality of the love story -- why are the most satisfying love stories tragic? for the wartime drama, and for incredible performances that show the characters evolving, accepting their losses, and helping each other.
Warning: The English Patient will set you to brooding about your own romantic past, but in the nicest way imaginable.
Copyright 1996 Mary Weems
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