The English Patient

Rated R –language
The Count (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) in the desert
This strikes me as the kind of movie the Motion Picture Academy is likely to fall all over, the one that might define 1996 for years to come. It's a World War Two Saharan desert epic with a love triangle in which (like Camelot and Dr. Zhivago,) adultery is justified on the grounds that no one expected or wanted an illicit affair; it just happened because, well, true love is like that; overtakes you when you're least expecting and desiring it.

The plot is thickly layered and there are equal helpings of shoot-up action and tender loving to appeal to both sexes. There are also a lot of complications that remain complicated, suggesting far more questions than answers in viewers' minds.

The English patient of the title is an unidentified comatose officer who is being transported through Italy after the end of the war when the nurse attending him asks permission to leave the convoy to give him a chance to recover. Otherwise, she says, he will surely die before he gets to a hospital. As the patient regains some consciousnes under the care of his nurse in a bomb-damaged monastery, he begins to remember the events in Egypt that brought him to this point, but the audience is not sure if he is the English husband of the woman who had the affair with a Hungarian count, or the count himself.

Besides the love affair in the patient's memory, there is romance abrewing at the monastery, too, as the nurse meets and begins to have feelings for an Indian Sikh officer of the allied miliatry who seeks out and disarms mines as his contribution to winning the peace. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is his taking the nurse on a "flying" tour (using pulley and tackle assemblies) in the massive church in the nearby town, where they get an angel's-eye view of the glorious frescoes high up on the church walls and ceiling. But it's also one of the film's frustrations: What does it mean? Surely it has some significance other than "cool date," but what that might be is never hinted at.

Definitely worth seeing, especially if you can get a date. It will give you lots to discuss at the malt shop afterwards–er, Starbucks–but it's far from the perfect film or even–what was the last great romance?–Sleepless in Seattle?

 

Photo by the film's distributor

1997, Jon Kennedy