ANYONE WHO READ MICHAEL Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel ""The English Patient'' must have wondered how this lyrical, dreamlike tale could possibly be turned into a movie. A meditation on love and identity and war, it drifts from World War II Italy to the prewar desert of North Africa, not so much telling a story as circling around one. It was a shimmering, impressionistic book that inspired passionate devotion or turned readers off on its first, ripely poetic page. Anthony Minghella, the English playwright turned filmmaker (""Truly Madly Deeply''), read it in one gulp and knew he had to film it. ""A lot of my friends said that I'd gone mad,'' he says. ""Because it does defy conventional adaptation.''
But Minghella has done it. More precisely, he's given us an interpretation of the novel that succeeds stunningly on its own terms. He's seen that at the heart of Ondaatje's novel was a love story screaming to get out--and he's liberated that romance with wit, sophistication and passion. The English Patient is both an old-fashioned movie-movie--extravagantly romantic, replete with spies, battles, sandstorms and ravishing vistas of Egypt and Tuscany--and a new kind of elliptical epic that challenges the audience to piece its fragments together. A modernist melodrama, it's the sort of movie that can reach both the art-house crowd and the popcorn patrons.
The movie, like the book, slips back and forth in time, a jigsaw puzzle of memory. In the present, we are in an abandoned monastery in Tuscany near the end of World War II, where a French Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliet Binoche), is tending to her hideously burned ""English patient'' (Ralph Fiennes), whose plane was shot down in the Sahara by the Germans a few years earlier. Soon they will be joined by Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian thief with mysteriously bandaged hands who works for the Allied forces, and a Sikh demolitions expert called Kip (Naveen Andrews), who faces death each day defusing the mines the Germans have left behind.
Out of each of these uprooted characters are spun stories of love, loyalty and betrayal. But the story that hooks us first, and deepest, is that of the patient, who is not English at all but the Hungarian Count Almasy, an explorer who before the war was charting the North African desert with an international team of geographers. There he met, and fell in love with, the strong and adventurous Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the aristocratic Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth).
Their adulterous affair has devastating repercussions, both personal and political. (These repercussions link the fates of Almasy and the revenge-seeking Caravaggio.) Against this all-consuming, incinerating love Minghella contrasts the other forms of love his movie explores--Hana's healing love for her patient, the refuge she and Kip find in each other's arms, Almasy's love of the desert that is threatened by the nationalistic passions of the war.
This beautifully shot (by John Seale) and intricately edited (by Walter Murch) movie takes a little time to get going. And when it's over, you may have trouble piecing together the chronology--this happened when? and that caused what? But once you're hooked, it never loses its grip on your emotions. A great deal of the credit belongs to Fiennes and Scott Thomas, who ignite on screen together. Their love scenes--torrid, well written and marvelously played--didn't exist in the novel. Minghella has a rare gift for articulating passion (especially rare in an Englishman). And in Scott Thomas he has an actress who seems supremely worthy of Almasy's rabid devotion, a love that turns this laconic, self-protective man half-mad with obsession.
There were some of us who never understood why Hugh Grant in ""Four Weddings and a Funeral'' passed up Scott Thomas for Andie MacDowell. Here she gets her first romantic leading role, and she fleshes it out with a stylish mix of fierce intelligence and sensuality. Fiennes hasn't been this good since ""Schindler's List.'' His Almasy is not a charmer; he's a closed-off, abrupt man, and he shows us how painful it is for such a man to lose himself in the grips of an erotic fever. Fiennes becomes almost another character as the patient: a gentler, more witty and philosophical man.
Binoche's Hana and Andrews's Kip have been stripped of some of the backstories Ondaatje gave them in the novel. But Andrews captures Kip's stillness, his warmth; he makes this jazz-loving Sikh vivid. Binoche is an almost too radiant Hana: at times she captures the lost, crazed quality of a woman who fears that every man she loves will die; at others she just seems strangely cheerful--a rather too obvious emblem for the life force. But perhaps I'm asking her to be the book's Hana, not the movie's. They are two different works, with different ravishments.
Bringing ""The English Patient'' to the screen was a high-risk project from the start, and it almost capsized. Twentieth Century Fox was going to finance the film, but it backed out at the last minute because Minghella and producer Saul Zaentz (""One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' ""Amadeus'') refused to cast it with big stars (Demi Moore was one of many actresses dying to be in it). When Fox pulled out, preproduction in Italy shut down for three weeks. Miramax's Harvey Weinstein came to the rescue with $27.5 million, which, with the $6 million put in by Zaentz and his company, allowed the filmmaker to make it his way.
Everyone involved was united in the desire to do justice to the book. Kristin Scott Thomas says she ""read the book passionately three times in a row. I kept getting to the end and starting it again, because I couldn't bear the thought of putting it down.'' Before she read Minghella's script, she thought she wanted to play Hana. Then she changed her mind. ""I wanted to play Katharine; it was a complete gut reaction. And if someone else did it, I'd want to scratch her eyes out.''
Ondaatje himself (a Canadian born in Sri Lanka) didn't write any of the script, but he was consulted throughout. And he loves the result. ""Anthony had to dismantle the book in order for it to work as a film. But it has the spirit of the book. What I liked about the film is that the emotion was there, point blank--it wasn't apologetic, it wasn't ironic.''
""It's so hard to find material that you can be passionate about,'' says Minghella, explaining what drew him to Ondaatje's tale. ""Someone once wrote [about my plays] that I was as interested in the big picture as in the intimacies of human behavior. That's what I wanted in this film. Look how extraordinary people are, look at the way they destroy each other and heal each other and bless each other. Look how Almasy can throw his life away over [his obsession with] a tiny place in a woman's neck. But none of this has any meaning without reference to what's going on outside, to history. I want to tell stories that work on a public and private level. The book did that. In one moment it's about the perils of nationalism, and the next it's about the perils of the suprasternal notch [that place in a woman's neck]. Its maps are both global and of the body.''
You'll see what he means in the first shot of the movie, as Almasy's plane flies over the dunes of the Sahara. The sand does not look precisely real. It could be a landscape, or it could be the contours of a woman's body. ""We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps by powerful men,'' Katharine writes to her lover. It's a lovely thought, but history, as it turns out, has other ideas.