Love and doom have always made dramatic bedfellows, but even those who gorge on romantic tragedies like A Farewell to Arms or Vertigo may find their appetite for fatal rapture duly tested by The English Patient. For this is a movie in which romance is saturated in catastrophe, like an episode of The Love Boat set aboard the Titanic. Liberally adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning poetic novel, The English Patient, a brooding, elliptical, mosaically structured love-and-war epic (it runs 2 hours and 39 minutes), shows us the most fervid stirrings of passion being ripped apart by disaster. Planes are shot out of the sky, a woman is blown to bits by a land mine, and a globe-trotting loner, having found the love of his life (they bond while getting buried in a sandstorm), loses not only that love but his face — he’s burned beyond recognition, turned into a scarred husk of a man who can only dream of what was. The source of most of this darkness is, literally speaking, World War II. Yet there’s also a greater metaphysic at work. In The English Patient, romance does more than dance with tragedy — it crashes on the rocky shoals of Fate.
From its opening vistas of a propeller plane cruising over rippled sand dunes, which are photographed to suggest the curves of a woman’s body (the images are so honey-rich they make Lawrence of Arabia look shabby), The English Patient is an elegant, accomplished piece of high modernist filmmaking. In scene after scene, you can feel the writer-director, Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply), straining for a masterpiece, a swank literary Casablanca. Minghella stakes his claim on the audience by inviting us to piece together the film’s jigsaw-puzzle design, which meticulously straddles time and place: the prewar desert of North Africa, where a crew of British cartographers, accompanied by the Hungarian Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), wander among the natives; and the Italian countryside near the end of the war, when Almásy, now an incinerated phantom (he looks like Freddy Krueger on sedatives), lies in a morphine haze inside an abandoned monastery, dreaming back over the affair that led him to this living death.
In the desert, Almásy developed a cautious attraction for Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the aristocratic wife of one of the cartographers; their passion then erupted into full-blown forbidden love. Fiennes, who disappeared inside the shells of his characters in Schindler’s List and Quiz Show, now comes on as a sexily severe matinee idol. The acerbic, fine-boned Scott Thomas matches him swoon for swoon, though what binds these two most is the ferocious glimmers of rage and pride that pepper their romance. Fiennes projects the agony of ecstasy — a man hungrily letting obsession get the better of him.
The English Patient is most compelling when it’s most conventional. But the film’s intricate structure has an unintended effect: Whenever we flash-forward to Fiennes’ scarred victim coming to terms with memory, the movie goes slack. (It’s as if the drama were being engulfed by its own framing device.) Some of the characters in this section don’t fully translate to the screen, such as Almásy’s nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a beaming ingenue who seems inexplicably devoted to him, or the Canadian thief Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), whose secret vendetta against Almásy stems from his own scorched memory. By the end, we understand how these characters fit the movie’s grand collage of love and betrayal, but it’s the very overelaborateness of that collage that makes The English Patient a remote and, at times, faintly oppressive experience. It’s a movie that lusts for catharsis yet never quite gets there, because, for all of its bitter romantic anguish, it ultimately coalesces in your head rather than your heart. B