Desert ghosts

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

Anthony Minghella believes in ghosts--and, at his best, makes believers out of viewers, too. The writer-director of Truly Madly Deeply and this heartfelt, eye-filling adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient scatters his movies with passionate specters. In Truly Madly Deeply the main ghost was a musician who persuades his lover that the living must go on living, and that the dead must go on after-living. In The English Patient, the main ghost is the title character (Ralph Fiennes), an amnesiac massive-burn victim spending his final days in a bombed-out Italian monastery near the end of the Second World War. Although he's alive, he says, "I died years ago" and registers vividly as a ghost in every way, from his macabre lacework of scars to his feeling that he's gone from Earth. Under the spell of morphine and the prodding of a bitter Allied agent named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who had his thumbs shorn by the Nazis, he begins to spill out memories of a different time and place: the North African desert of the '30s, home to a chivalrous cadre of explorers jocularly nicknamed "the International Sand Club."

As the movie cascades between the patient's new Gothic environment and his flashbacks of Cairo and the sands beyond, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse, becomes his dedicated friend--despite her belief that everyone who loves her dies. Hana says, "I'm in love with ghosts. So is he. He's in love with ghosts." Before long she falls in love with a sapper (bomb disposal expert) from India--a Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews)--who also develops a bond with the burned man (they banter about Kipling). Caravaggio, who suspects and confirms the worst of the patient's past, finds they share a surprising affinity. Facing up to his tragic, tortured history, the patient goads the grief-stricken survivors into accepting their unruly lives.

If this transit provides the dramatic arc of The English Patient, its emotional core comes from Minghella's inspired handling of the molten love story that bubbles up in the background. It turns out that the patient isn't English at all, but the Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy, and that he wound up broken and incinerated because of his romantic devotion to a brilliant, married Brit, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). What's more, their amorous tribulations ensnared him in a skein of betrayal. Katharine's husband, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth), was a fellow member of the International Sand Club and a British operative. Like Michael Ondaatje, the author of the original novel, Minghella gives us an old theme with a modern twist: not only is war hell, but the devils who propel it switch from side to side.

It's possible to enjoy the book for long stretches without knowing exactly what's going on: It combines stark conflict and lyric flights in a way that lifts sympathetic readers into an aesthetically charged alternate universe. Ondaatje accomplishes this feat not by florid description, wild similes, or any of the other cliched devices we associate with "lush prose," but by focusing on concrete details as sharply as any movie director--the white marble lion Hana can see from a hospital in Pisa, or the phosphorous green of the sapper's crystal radio set. In his skillful adaptation, Minghella manages to conjure similar heightened effects while compressing the narrative. In the opening shots, a brush paints prehistoric swimmers on what could be parchment or a wall, and a man and a woman fly in a two-seater plane over the undulating desert sand. Minghella creates an atmosphere thick with poetic and erotic suggestion. With a fabulist's instinct, he sustains that atmosphere even when the story turns plodding or tricky, or when its message obtrudes.

Minghella brings Ondaatje's vision of nationalism sabotaging human bonds into the movie in deft, balanced, and understated ways. The International Sand Club--the men who gather with Almasy to chart the Egyptian-Libyan desert and explore vanished worlds--forms a utopian vision of international cooperation; that 20th-century warrior states covet the club's maps is achingly ironic. But when Almasy and his friends wind up on opposite ends of an epochal world crisis, it's too easy for a novelist or filmmaker to blame the big bad forces of nationalism without demystifying the explorers' own arrogant complacency and naivete. It should be jarring--no, harrowing--for us to root for anyone who satisfies personal vows and desires no matter the public consequences, to the extent of killing Allies or cooperating with Nazis. Yet the movie, like the book, ultimately dashes chaos and guilt away in a fervid romanticism. It's a whitewash job done with sperm.

Clearly, Ondaatje is lucky in his adapter, because Minghella is a storybook moviemaker--indeed, he wrote all the episodes of the Emmy award-winning Jim Henson's The Storyteller. One medieval fable (as collected in a later book) began with a Samuel Johnson quote appropriate to The English Patient ("Life protracted is protracted woe") and ended with a vision of its hero wandering "as we all do, between Heaven and Hell," always falling an inch short of Paradise because he succeeded in scaring Death, and doing his dance of death-in-life "just before sleep, or at places where sand meets sea, land meets sky." The magic hour is Minghella's metier, whether it marks the twilight of a life or a day; no one is better at the limbo rock. There's an expressive otherworldliness to the fleeting shots of the Bedouins tending to Almasy; they cover his face with a mask of plaited palms that both makes him seem a primordial tribesman and fractures his view of the universe. At least Almasy knows that he reached Paradise in the arms of Katharine. And as Katharine, Kristin Scott Thomas fills the screen with her brainy sensuality--after stealing Angels and Insects just a few months ago in the role of a supposed plain Jane.

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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