The English Patient
directed by Anthony Minghella
(Miramax, 1996)

Hana loves Laszlo but Laszlo loves Katharine but Katharine is married to Geoffrey who loves Katharine but has to leave for a few days. So Katharine has an affair with Laszlo who winds up in the hands of Hana who's seeing Kip who loves Hardy who's engaged to a village girl we rarely see at all.

The season opener of Melrose Place? Guess again. This is soap opera of the highest order, a tale of timeless love, one of the few films that made a lasting impression on viewers last year: The English Patient.

It's not hard to be swept away by The English Patient. It has more elements than most films have merchandising offers.

On the surface, it's the tale of an anonymous patient (Ralph Fiennes) being nursed back to health by a Canadian army nurse (Juliet Binoche) somewhere in Italy during World War II.

But beneath its grotesque surface lies a far more grotesque mystery: how the burnt ember of the man lying in a bed in a bombed-out Italian chapel came to be there, and why. To learn that, we have to follow the patient's flashbacks, which is easier said than done, as they don't always appear in an orderly fashion.

The patient, a.k.a. Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy, was mapping Egypt for the National Geographic Society when who should arrive but Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Before long, Laszlo and Katharine are caught up in the kind of love-hate relationship that invariably, in movies at least, leads to bathing together.

But this is the desert, where nothing is what it appears to be, and the eve of World War II, when nothing was what it appeared to be. And before long, we have intertwining mysteries, as well as intertwining love triangles.

Every epoch has its epic. In that sense, The English Patient is a sort of Doctor Zhivago for the '90s. Send in sand for snow, World War II for the Russian Revolution and a nurse for a doctor and you'll go a long way to understanding Patient's appeal.

But there's more to it than that, much of which has to do with the performers.

Fiennes is in fine form as the living remains of Laszlo, who survived a plane crash to become a burned-out match stick of a man who can do little besides talk and flash back. Likewise Binoche, who earned an Oscar for best supporting actress, oozes empathy as the nurse who is drawn to Laszlo despite what he may or may not have been.

And just to make sure there's mayhem, we get Willem Dafoe as David Caravaggio, a thumbless wonder who just might know who the English Patient is and how he got there.

Dafoe is one of the few Hollywood actors who can disappear into a role. Whether he's the voice of law and order (the FBI guy in Mississippi Burning) or of temptation (Tom Cruise's tormentor in Born on the Fourth of July) Dafoe is as hard to figure as he is to spot. And this unpredictability makes him a joy to watch on the screen -- though personally I'd rather have only heard about how Caravaggio lost his thumbs.

Delicately lighted, vast in its scope and pumped full of memorable dialogue, The English Patient won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1996.

I'm not sure it was 1996's best picture, but it's definitely fetching -- and well worth fetching.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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