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Examining the 'Patient' Filmmaker: Anthony Minghella has brought to the screen a perfectly blended story of love and war, private lives and historic circumstance.


The Brits haven't yet figured out that movie people are supposed to be cool. For God's sake, even a guy like Jon Lovitz knows that and is trying to get with it these days! But to a man, they appear for interviews as dowdy, blimpy, regular guys, well-packed in avoirdupois and well-swaddled in bad clothes.

Take Anthony Minghella, for example. Minghella, an award-winning English playwright, hit the big time, sort of, a few years back with "Truly Madly Deeply," which was called an intelligent "Ghost," an act of romantic mesmerization with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson. It had the rare mix of solid ideas, witty dialogue and sheer pleasure that excited critics and real people alike.

Now he's about to check in with the eagerly awaited "The English Patient," the fastest two hours and 40 minutes on record, an Oscar fest, maybe the best "old-fashioned" movie in years, and boy, he hasn't spent much time at his tailor's!

Anthony, like, haven't you encountered this phenomenon called matching? You know, maybe checks and stripes and patches in different shades, hues, shapes and densities with some relationship to each other? You shouldn't look like an explosion in a Manchester cotton mill. There shouldn't be quite the randomness and sheer velocity evident.

But Minghella, who looks a little like Andre Agassi inflated into a helium balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, clearly doesn't care and just as clearly shouldn't. No sir. The matching that he's pulled off as screenwriter and director of "The English Patient" far surpasses anything he could wear: It's a subtle orchestration of image, tone, mood and symbol, in a key of romance, a study of the fiery torrents of attraction, the mysterious pull of hormones over country and ideology, as splattered across the globe in that recent and all but forgotten bit of nastiness called the Second World War. Now that's matching!

"I'm interested by the kinds of stories which hinge between private and public worlds," he says, explaining the passion that informs "The English Patient." "All actions are not hermetically sealed. They have consequences. They impact the world; I like to relate the individual to history."

"The English Patient" is based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian Michael Ondaatje; it's the story of a mysterious, memory-shattered, burned man (Ralph Fiennes), plucked from the North African desert after a plane crash, who is ministered to by a Canadian nurse in an Italian villa in 1944, as the big war crashes all about them.

Gradually, his story comes out, a tale of twisted love and %J betrayal, set against a background of intelligence-agency intrigue. Meanwhile, his dilemma illuminates the lives of the people around him, including the nurse (Juliet Binoche), a shadowy assassin named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) and a Sikh bomb-disposal officer (Naveen Andrews) busy de-booby trapping the villa and falling in love with the nurse.

As the patient recollects, his past reconstructs itself in a series of flashbacks, and we journey with him through the cockpit of European intrigue in the late '30s. It becomes clear that he was a Hungarian aristocrat named Almasy, an explorer mapping the North African desert under the auspices of British Intelligence for military reasons.

But he fell in love with a fellow explorer's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the two embarked on a ruinous love affair that had ramifications not only in their private lives, but in the public sphere of their mission -- the maps they made ultimately turned up in the hands of the Germans, who used them in their assault on Tobruk and their drive to Alexandria and Cairo in 1941.

The theme of the film is the paradox, at a certain level, of patriotic identities, the illusion that national connections mean something. It's something Minghella himself feels passionately.

"I have no clean lineage myself. I'm English, but I'm Italian. But I was raised on the Isle of Wight. Now, if I were to meet someone exactly like that, I would be instantly drawn to them and feel a commonality with him. But why? Why should that be?"

Yet at the same time, he confesses, "I'm terribly aware that we're comforted by patriotism. Here I've spent 3 1/2 years on a project that examines these issues, yet at the same time, I have no problem whatsoever getting up at 5 in the morning, driving for an hour across Los Angeles to a bar where I can watch England play Holland in a football match. And I feel more Italian than English! Except, of course, when I'm in Italy."

Of course, he says, there are no simple answers to these issues, which has resulted in a film that trumpets its own ambiguities and refuses to take absolute moral stances. The "hero" may also be a spy, who sold out the Allies; or he may be a romantic fool; or he may be both, or neither.

"One mandate I feel," he confesses, "is to subvert the moral clarity that Hollywood is so proud of. Nobody calls himself a bad guy, but we trample all over each other to get what we want. If I'm going to make fiction, I want it to be as truthful about life as I can make it. So I've tried to make a film that takes its audience seriously, and treats them as intellectual voyagers. I know I'm not the only one who wants a richer mix and not be rocked by pyrotechnics. There's a lot going on. At its best, it's trying to be a feast, not a fast-food hamburger."

But there's a question of truthfulness to the book. Ondaatje's volume was postmodernist; a fractured series of images and fragments, it told no coherent story, but offered up icons throughout the time period, allowing readers to more or less write the story in their own head. It was almost a puzzle-game of a narrative, and its solution was one of the pleasures of the reading experience.

L "In a sense, it's not a chronicle at all," Minghella admits.

He knew that such an approach would never work for a film, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that has to appeal to a far wider audience. Therefore, he had to concoct a kind of parallel story to the one implied in the book, tell it more coherently; he describes it as a process of finding "visual correlatives" to the book.

"I had to find a way to get the audience into the creative presence of the story. In some sense I was collecting a story that would connect all the points in the book, and always looking for ways to keep it coherent. You have to always know where you are. A lot of this has to do with color. I worked very hard with [cinematographer] John Seale to keep the colors of the regions distinct: Italy is like a water color. The desert is radiant, bleached of color. It's a wet place/dry place dichotomy. At the same time, a writer like Michael can conjure up Cairo in 1939 in a single paragraph. But as a filmmaker, it's not that easy -- I've got to have Cairo!"

He felt, still, a tremendous loyalty to the book.

"I've always loved Michael's writing. I thought of it as a gift to myself and I bought it when I was working on another screenplay. I thought of it as a way to stop writing. But when I did read it, I was awestricken. I called Saul [Zaentz, the producer] and said, 'We have to do this as a movie.' "

After working on the script for a year -- with Ondaatje's blessing, input and insight -- Minghella was finally able to start casting.

He got the requisite Big Names: Fiennes, Binoche, Dafoe. But his most controversial choice was Kristen Scott Thomas as Almasy's married English lover and the woman for whom, in the end, he throws everything away. If the movie was to work, the attraction between these two should be paramount.

Thomas was best known as Hugh Grant's acerbic pal in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Thin, extremely English, she's always played icy, ironic, witty women, never the romantic lead. In this film, however, she's got to be nearly a goddess, a powerful image of succulent femininity, fiery enough to attract the restrained nobleman out of his shell and urge him to a desperate gamble. You've got to feel the sexual heat between them, to illustrate one of the book's key points: "The heart is an organ of fire."

"In a sense," says Minghella, who always casts things "in a sense" or "at one level," "the only two people who don't have the credentials to be in this film are Kristin and me. I was looking for a really remarkable actor. I knew she was a real gamble, but she so fully justified the casting decision that I have no doubts whatsoever. Now I know that Kristin is brilliant in it -- but me?"

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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