[Deep Focus]

The English Patient opens with one of the film's many touchstone images -- somebody is touching brush to paper, drawing seemingly inscrutable lines with some precision. We wonder whether this is some unfamiliar language, but as the credits progress, the image takes on the shape of a human figure, swimming. The image, we will later learn, has been copied from the ancient paintings on the wall of a desert cave.

The cave of swimmers, as it is known, is discovered by a geographic expedition engaged in mapping out the Sahara Desert for the British government. The next day, those explorers will be taking refuge against a huge windstorm that fills the air with sand. Two lovers-to-be are holed up in a truck that strains against the ferocious clamor outside. One of them, inspired by the danger, begins to tell the other stories about the wind -- the Aajej, the Ghibli, and the Simoon, a wind so terrible that a nation declared war on it. The winds are harbingers for these characters, like the waters that sweep a swimming man downstream no matter how he struggles against the current. Nations at war conjure up a ferocious storm, tearing lovers apart and bringing others caroming together at odd angles. The English Patient is the kind of movie that makes you want to interpret everything you see, that makes you keenly aware that everything can have meaning.

Director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) has freely adapted Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel into a flavorful melange, weaving through time from 1944 Italy to late 1930s Egypt and back again before tracing careful steps tying the two stories together. In the one tale, French-Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche, radiant as ever) deserts her Red Cross convoy to care for a badly burned man identified only as "English patient" -- he was rescued by Bedouin tribesmen after Nazi gunners shot his plane out of the air over the Sahara. This patient is essentially a corpse waiting to lose consciousness, but he retains some shred of good humor; under interrogation over his nationality, he cracks, "I'm a bit of toast, my friend -- butter me and slip a poached egg on top."

Nationality matters a great deal as World War II winds down, and being revealed as a German would be the worst fate to befall a patient in an Italian hospital circa 1944, even one so badly scarred as this. We soon learn that he's not English at all; he's the Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), and he was a cartographer in the employ of the British government. It's the tale leading up to that beautifully rendered but ill-fated flight over the Sahara which constitutes the second, arguably more compelling, story of The English Patient.

It's an absolute pleasure to follow these characters through the film's 160-minute length. Minghella is a confident director surrounded by expert performers, and he's created a swooning, full-tilt epic of desire, betrayal, war-tattered lives, and landscapes shaped like a woman's body. Navigating a world littered with bombs and mines, these characters nurture passions that will reverberate across borders and echo through time. Chief among these is the wickedly intellectual affair between Almasy and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of another member of his expedition.

Meanwhile (at least in terms of screen time), Hana is falling in love, not with her patient, but with Kip (Naveen Andrews) a Sikh bomb disposal expert who enters her life by shooing her away from the monastery's piano -- he fears the Germans have mined it, and he's right. Kip sets up camp nearby, and helps Hana care for her patient. He tries to read Rudyard Kipling aloud to the patient, and the two of them get into an argument over the prose. "Your eye is too impatient," the patient scolds him. "Think about the speed of his pen." Later, Kip will lure Hana to his bedroom with a trail of snail-shell lamps, and will send her on a rope-and-pulleys tour of a frescoed church. Such shamelessly romantic conceits are the stuff that makes this film go, and mostly it just goes beautifully.

Scott Thomas's performance has been singled out for special praise, but in truth they are all remarkable, from Fiennes' handsomely tormented lead to Willem Dafoe's mysterious, thumbless Caravaggio. John Seale's cinematography is mostly stunning, although the sameness of the orange tones gets to be a little much in such a lengthy outing. Film editor Walter Murch (instrumental in the editing and sound design of Apocalypse Now) doubtless deserves special praise for his world-class technique -- Minghella acknowledges that the film's mostly seamless feat of flitting over and over again from setting to setting was largely conceived and achieved in the cutting room. Murch's instinctive cutting style is a big part of what makes The English Patient so convincing. In the final scenes, as Binoche hitches a ride to Florence on the back of a truck, we cross-cut from a shot of that biplane, once again in the sky over the Sahara, to a shot of Binoche's face, reaching some kind of resolution at last, to a shot of trees on the roadside, filtering and flickering the sunlight as we ride past, and finally to the sun itself, blazing pure white on the cinema screen (the credits roll over this in black). I can't explain exactly what such a sequence means -- but if I could, it wouldn't be pure cinema. It is.

The big-screen tricks Minghella brings to bear on this story aren't exactly high-concept, but they work like a charm -- the biplane flight that opens and closes the film is impossibly romantic and surreal (to ironic effect), Fred Astaire sings "Cheek to Cheek" on the soundtrack (to devastating effect), and a crucial plane crash in the latter reels is almost frighteningly effective -- you feel like the audience at one of the first demonstrations of moving pictures, who reportedly leapt out of their seats with fear as a locomotive apparently bore down upon them. If anything, The English Patient has too many ideas and too much portentous symbology for its own good -- a common affliction of movies that try to pack too many signs and metaphors from source novels into their own text. For its flaws, and despite a patch during the third act where it seems to lose its way, The English Patient is one bold melodrama. From beginning to end, it's gasping for air and striving for greatness. It never quite reaches that summit, but it's an intoxicating view all the same.

Written and Directed by Anthony Minghella
Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje
Cinematography by John Seale
Edited by Walter Murch
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche,
and Willem Dafoe
USA, 1996

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer