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ENGLISH PATIENT, THE (director/writer: Anthony Minghella; screenwriter: based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje; cinematographer: John Seale; editor: Walter Murch; music: Gabriel Yared; cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Laszlo de Almásy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Madox), Juergen Prochnow (German Officer), Kevin Whately (Hardy); Runtime: 162; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Saul Zaentz; Miramax Films; 1996)
“Overlong and stifling high-class desert war story that mixes a tearjerker romance with a beguiling mystery story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Anthony Minghella (“Truly, Madly, Deeply”/”Mr. Wonderful”/”Cold Mountain”) directs and writes on an epic scale this overlong and stifling high-class desert war story that mixes a tearjerker romance with a beguiling mystery story. It’s a diluted adaptation from the 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje. It won nine Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Editor (Walter Murch) and Best Cinematography (John Seale). It’s set mostly during World War II (in the late 1930’s and 1940’s), as it moves through two time frames to tell of the love story of Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), an Hungarian explorer and map maker, with the recently married English painter, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). It covers themes revolving around love and friendship, betrayal and lust, as viewed through the prism of war.

French-Canadian nurse Hana (Binoche) volunteers to remain behind in an abandoned, bombed monastery in Tuscany to care for her badly burned dying patient (Ralph Fiennes), with not long to live, who was rescued from a plane wreck in the Sahara Desert, in 1943, by passing Bedouins. The Allies determine he’s a pilot who cannot be moved, and he becomes known only as “The English Patient” since he has no identification and cannot remember his name–only certain that he’s not German even if he speaks the language.

Shot full of morphine, the patient drifts in and out of lucid thoughts. His memories turn to the time when he was a desert-based archaeologist and was joined in Cairo by fellow adventurer pilot and member of the Royal Geographical Society, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his attractive wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Not happy to have a female in the expedition, the Count reacts badly to her, but slowly changes over time when Katharine proves she can cut it in the desert and he begins a doomed romance with her.

The concerned nurse and the delirious patient pass the time mostly alone. But a few visitors show up such as the strange Canadian visitor Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) bearing a gift of eggs and mine-clearers Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Sgt. Hardy (Kevin Whately). Kip is a Sikh who begins a delicate romance with the nurse, the film’s second love tale. Caravaggio is eventually revealed as a sordid, morphine-addicted thief, who has links with the patient as he asks him pointed questions over his past dark secrets.

For most of the film that is filtered through flashbacks and inferences, we are kept in the dark about the patient as the film moves through its mechanical ploys in the direction of clearing up the romantic and mysterious things. By the climax it reveals it’s mostly about studying the different responses each has to love and war. But by the time everything becomes more lucid, I was simply bored out my skull after trying to do all I could from nodding out from this respectable and beautifully shot but dull drama that never moved me and seemed to take itself far too seriously.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”