"The English Patient" plunges one into the heart of radiance: It's a heat that can maim cruelly, as applied to flesh; or it's a heat that can heal, also as applied to flesh, but necessarily involving someone else's flesh as well.
Those are the possibilities covered by the film, which is another way of saying its possibilities encompass the whole world, as well as the entire metaphorical spectrum of fire. A love story, a spy story, a war story, an airplane story, a desert story, even a bomb-disposal story (and a damn good one!), it's best of all a movie story: a big, fat old-fashioned gush of passion as drawn through a post-modernist prism that makes it less easily comprehensible but more beguiling. Set in the century's worst patch of nasty business, the war they still call "The Big One," it turns into a tapestry of tattered memory in a burned man's mind, and as he remembers, the remnants of his life in some way illuminate the lives of those about him.
It begins with an old-fashioned yellow bi-plane scudding over a desert landscape. Big mistake; within seconds, it becomes clear we're smack in the middle of World War II, and a German flak battalion unleashes a torrent of steel grief toward the plane, frail and gossamer as it is. The plane burns, our first image of sheer blazing heat. It's the most terrifying airplane fire ever photographed, hot and white and hungry, devouring the fabric and the flesh it attacks. The pilot (Ralph Fiennes) survives, hideously burned, isolated in his cask of melted flesh and nights of endless pain. Rescued by Berbers, he begins a long journey across the desert and the sea.
Somehow, by 1944, he's in a Canadian infantry column in Italy, in sick bay, his presence puzzling to both intelligence debriefers and medicos, who call him "The English Patient," since he speaks that language, among others.
Possibly his brain holds military secrets; possibly it holds mere delusions; he is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a landscape of third-degree burns. He is just barely alive, self-described in his own bitter wit as a piece of toast with the lung capacity of a gnat.
A young Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche, fabulous), who's lost everything to the war, comes to care for him; it becomes necessary for her to make him live, to claim one victory over the maw of death that's gobbled her lover, her best friend and a devil's own ice cream cone full of boys and kids.
So she and he -- and eventually others -- take refuge from the madness in a ruined monastery, a symbol of Western civilization's pulverization and degradation by violence (a booby trap in a piano and a statue, for example; art turned to weaponry). The others come to include a brave Sikh bomb-disposal expert (Naveen Andrews) and his hardy Brit corporal, and a spy who may be an assassin (Willem Dafoe) with unfinished business for the burned man. All are in some way engaged by the drama of the burned man's remembering.
It's a complex tale. He turns out to be -- to have been -- a Hungarian aristocrat who was, with a group of other well-born, adventurous swells, involved in mapping the North African deserts in the late '30s, possibly under the shadowy auspices of Her Majesty's Secret Service. They are joined in the desert by a madcap couple: a British pilot (doughty Colin Firth) and his glamorous wife Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The Hungarian Count Almasy, by name -- doesn't like them, of course; and his very aloofness is part of the magic between himself and Katherine.
Katherine and Almasy: instant radiance. The first but not least strength of "The English Patient" is the way in which it conjures up the flame of this relationship. We feel the flare and the temperatures rising, and the erotic tide of hormones, pheromones, genomes and jeroboams (full of lover's champagne!).
Marooned in a car under the sand, isolated in the desert, thrown together by the same God who stage-managed Tristan und Isolde, Romeo & Juliet and Warren and Annette, the two feel a love that comes to seem so potent it's mythological, a force more powerful than the winds, the sands and the sky that frame it.
This story builds slowly and hypnotically as it emerges from the ++ chaos of the patient's shattered consciousness or, occasionally, from the recollections of others: The device of lost memory reassembling itself a bit at a time is a hoary enough device but simultaneously a storyteller's total intoxicant, for it can take us from the ruined monastery to Cairo in 1939, the airborne invasion of Tobruk in 1941, Alexandria in 1942 in a trice. Anthony Minghella, who wrote as well as directed from Michael Ondaatje's novel, never really rushes: The movie glides along, borne on the zephyrs of passion and whirlwinds of irony.
Underneath, it's the issue of identity, ironically reflective of another great film set not far away at around the same time: Are you what your papers say or what your heart says? Almasy, stateless, becomes a citizen of the nation of love, and he will sacrifice anything to live up to the responsibilities of that conscription. The movie yearns to find nobility in his commitment to a larger human truth, though I find this its weakest stroke. This was World War II, wasn't it? These were the boys with the double-lightning jewelry on their lapels, feeding the children into the crematoriums, no? Rick Blaine knew that back in 1942, when he pointed out that the troubles of three little people don't add up to a hill of beans in this world.
Still, the movie does one other thing rare in films today. It restores World War II to imaginative primacy. One of the things you feel, a kind of subsidiary history lesson, is how big a war it was, how important. It seems to slosh everywhere across the landscape like a drunken bulldozer, leaving its survivors dazed and desperate. As a love story and an adventure story, "The English Patient" is the fastest, most powerful two hours and 40 minutes this year. It's terrific.
'The English Patient'
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Released by Miramax
Sun score ****
Pub Date: 11/22/96