An epic movie about war, The English Patient, based on a novel and adapted for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, beautifully sprinkles its themes throughout sprawling north African desert scenes and landscapes, romanticizes religion and delivers an unforgettable elegy about forbidden romantic love.
Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1996 centers upon an adventurer named Laszlo who poses in some sense as a discoverer (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List). I say this because he never really discovers anything but trouble. But, during the first of three hours, he is the story’s more mysterious presence. The piercing eyes of this gaunt, handsome mapmaker haunt the story within a story and attract the liberated Western woman (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their affair—she is married, he is a loner—dominates the film.
This includes a subplot featuring Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) as a nurse with an affinity for the dying. The English Patient begins with the gentle sounds of windchimes that foreshadow the winds of war and proceeds to alternate between the tales of Ms. Binoche’s Hana losing her values and reclaiming and restoring her life and the torrid, doomed affair between the mapmaker and the fallen woman. Amid pagan nudity, forbidden oils and fruits and readings from the Greek historian Herodotus, the clashing cultures intertwine in sensuality and theme. But, consistent with the film’s subtly Islamic subtext, the female is the temptress to the male; he is bewitched.
Some of the writing, possibly taken from the novel, is exquisite and perfectly portrayed, especially by Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). The best writing serves the story’s unfolding, such as when the nurse Hana explains to her English patient when he chides her for taking in a stranger for provincial reasons: “We’re at war; where you come from becomes important.” The patient, whose face is burned beyond recognition, asks and, then answers: “Why? I hate that idea.”
This is The English Patient‘s leitmotif; the idea that love knows no bounds and the world is whole and accessible to everyone in it. The nurse listens and learns from the wise, burned patient and nourishes the notion, healing herself back to mental health as she tends a garden and wills herself to love again. Nursing oneself is the movie’s best and most successful theme.
But it is secondary to the anti-war theme that love is lost in war. Like the bleak but enticing Pacific World War 2 picture From Here to Eternity, the bleak but enticing European World War 2 picture The English Patient lulls the audience into its passionate affair, reaching its climax in a dance between wife and would-be lover when it is silently, powerfully clear that he wants her, even as her patriotic war hero husband, expertly played by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), watches the two as they dance.