Desert ghosts

Director Anthony Minghella gracefully brings a complex tale of war to screen

The film's editor, Walter Murch, must have collaborated closely with Minghella on the movie's graceful, intuitive transitions between past and present; these cement the connections between distant sounds and sights. Along with cinematographer John Seale, a virtuoso of vistas and filigree, they create a marvelous rag-and-bottle shop of the mind with the story's tactile elements: tinkling morphine cylinders and a Bedouin healer's clanking glass jars, a bracelet worn by one of Hana's dead friends, and a thimble Katharine transforms into a necklace. Murch has written that one task of an editor is extending the rhythms of a good actor "into territory not covered by the actor himself." So his peak contribution may be the exquisite showcase Minghella provides for Thomas. From the moment Katharine steps down from her plane into the desert, Thomas evinces a barely contained vitality that puts everyone around her on a joyous red alert. Even Fiennes' glowering Almasy perks up in her presence. It's futile for him to use his courtly distance as a shield against sexual attraction, so his aristocratic dourness takes on a comic edge. When they're thrown together during a sandstorm--and Almasy, unable to resist flirtation, recites a litany of fabled winds, his change is gratifying in an old-Hollywood way--the woman next to me sighed and asked, "Why is he so cute all of a sudden?" Well, it's partly because of Thomas, who brings a complete carnal consciousness to the erotic scenes, which are full of torment as well as rapture. Thomas makes you believe that Katharine can hold two clashing ideas in her head and two men in her heart; when she's bathing with Almasy and includes her husband in a list of things she loves, the feeling is tender and rueful.

Minghella has a gift for outsized emotion. When Kip attaches Hana to a rig that sends her bobbing in the air around church frescoes, she's the embodiment of euphoria; and Katharine and Almasy's tragic reunion is an epic heartbreak (too bad Gabriel Yared's inflated music mars its purity). The character of Almasy, a man's man who learns there's more danger and mystery in the indentation of a woman's neck (her "suprasternal notch") than in a desert cave, a stiff-necked idealist whom tragedy humanizes, could become--scar tissue and all--a yuppie fantasy figure. His long leavetaking from Earth, and the solace of his recollected passion, will touch chords with baby boomers who've lost friends to illnesses like AIDS, or parents to age. There are moments in The English Patient when its blend of time-hopping wit, fierce literacy, and poignantly used pop music begs comparison to The Singing Detective.

But this intelligent, affecting work is squishy at the core. Almasy never apologizes to a man who might have been mutilated because of his actions--he says that nothing concerned him except Katharine. Maybe the boomers' huge pop romance Love Story had broader and more lasting influence than anyone thought. In The English Patient, too, love means never having to say you're sorry, about anything.

The English Patient. Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, and Naveen Andrews. Directed and written by Anthony Minghella, from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. Now showing.

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