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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 11/21/1996, B: Peter Keough,

Broken English

Anthony Minghella's Patient doesn't fully recover

by Peter Keough

THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Directed by Anthony Minghella. Written by Minghella adapted from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. With Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, and Jürgen Prochnow. A Miramax Pictures release. At the Nickelodeon, the Harvard Square, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

You've got to admire Anthony Minghella's nerve in adapting Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, a story so oblique and convoluted it's barely contained by Ondaatje's rarefied prose, never mind the literal superficiality of the film medium. To Minghella's credit, he's retained the bulk of the original, even tossed in new bits of his own. The result is overstuffed and formless, with wrong emphases and misdirections, a love story straining to be epic but managing only to be long.

Click for an interview with writer Michael Ondaatje.


It is beautiful to look at, however. The opening moments suggest that Minghella had half a chance of translating this meditation on memory, identity, the conflict between desire and duty, and the meaninglessness of history and nations into something visual. An unidentifiable dun surface fills the screen. Is it a wall, a canvas, the ground? A brush paints curved strokes on it, and the shapes teasingly change and refuse to resolve themselves. A cut is made to what looks like the contours of a naked body; it's the desert seen from the air. The shadow of a plane crosses it; the plane crashes and burns.

It's all very well to address mutability and ambiguity in an image, but when these ideas become the organizing principle of a narrative, there's a problem. The book is essentially three interlinked love stories; Ondaatje tries to cram them all in, at the cost of focus and dramatic drive. The peg on which he tries to hang everything is more of a device than a character: the English patient (Ralph Fiennes), the survivor of that air crash. Severely burned, without identity, and claiming partial amnesia, he's under the care of Hana (Juliette Binoche, who does a lot of crying but shows no real feeling), a Canadian nurse, in a battered villa in World War II Italy.

Herself in mourning for a fiancé killed at the front, Hana is drawn to her patient's polymathic wit and profound melancholy. Under mummy-like make-up, Fiennes croons to her what he remembers about his past in fluty tones reminiscent of Sir John Gielgud. "Thucydides," he warbles, "the father of history . . . " The book drops and some personal papers fall out, conveniently setting up the first of many flashbacks.

The English patient is, in fact, a Hungarian: Count Laszlo Almásy, a real-life explorer who before the war went on expeditions with international groups of his colleagues, among them Geoffrey Clifton (an overfed-looking Colin Firth), and his wife, Katharine. Unlike her previous repertoire of repressed types, Kristin Scott Thomas's Katharine is vital, sensuous, and willful. After some initial coldness, she and Almásy engage in a torrid, destructive affair that tests their loyalties, runs afoul of World War II, and ends with Almásy's flaming fall in the desert.

That could have been the whole movie -- a kind of inverse Casablanca. Instead we get more than we need of the narrative frame, which Minghella attempts to make into something more a than a device. First Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) enters, another mystery man whose hands are bandaged and who has a keen, unfriendly interest in the patient. Next comes Kip (Naveen Edwards), a Sikh bomb-disposal expert assigned to clear the mines left behind by the Germans.

The connection between Hana and Caravaggio is nonexistent. The relationship between Hana and Almásy relationship is vague and contrived; it doesn't help that Fiennes has no face to act with and that Binoche never quite gets a grip on her Canadian accent. Hana and Kip look more promising -- in the book this is the most original and touching liaison. But we get no sense of how their love develops or why: Hana catches a glimpse of Kip barechested washing his long raven hair, and the next thing you know he's doing boyish, endearing things like making lamps from snail shells or hoisting her up to see a Piero della Francesca ceiling fresco. Otherwise the characters are outlines: she's alienated because she feels anyone she loves dies, he's alienated because he's an Indian in the English army.

At times The English Patient does evoke the power of its source. In one scene Katharine is left behind injured in a cavern -- the one containing the cave paintings of the film's opening moments. As her light fades, she writes in her diary, "We are the real countries, not the bodies drawn in maps by powerful men." And in another scene Hana picks up Almásy's Thucydides to read his inscription, "Betrayals in war are childlike compared to betrayals in peace . . . the heart is an organ of fire." It's significant that both moments owe more to Ondaatje's prose than to Minghella's filmmaking. The English Patient's heart may be in the right place, but the fire is lacking.