English Patient

A Film Review

image: Lazlo, Before and After
“The English Patient”, 1996, Anthony Minghella
“The English Patient” is a mystery wrapped in four interlocking love stories. Screenwriter and director, Anthony Minghella retells the story of a Hungarian aristocrat Lazlo Almàsy in the period around WWII. Almàsy was a cartographer operating out of Cairo who got involved in the North African fighting between the British and the Germans.
Minghella's story is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje was born in what was then Ceylon but lives in Canada and writes in English. Although Minghella kept Ondaatje's basic theme there are differences.
For example Ondaatje's ending takes a jab at Anglo-Saxon racism by having a character say “they would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation” when speaking of the American bombing of Hiroshima whereas Minghalla, a Brit, includes no mention of Hiroshima in his movie.
Minghella's story cuts between two segments of Almàsy's life: one in North Africa, where he is a healthy multilingual cartographer, and the other segment in Italy, where he is badly burned and anonymously known as “The English Patient”.
The photography and film editing are superb. North Africa is sunny and magnificent. Italy is blue-tinged and instantly recognizable as not-Africa. Transitions between the two segments are both creative and nonobtrusive.
Although the movie begins in Africa, the African segment is a flashback. As the movie progresses the various flashbacks become more than just flashbacks. They become part of the English Patient's defense against charges that he is responsible for the death and suffering of lots of people.
Almàsy defense is both convincing and ambiguous. If you do something that indirectly and unintentionally causes death, what is your degree of responsibility? What if your action merely causes different people to die?
There are five interlocking relationships in this movie.
image: International Sand Club
The first consists of a group of cartographers operating out of Cairo, Egypt. This a multinational group of friends. Their ethnic diversity is emphasized in a scene in which they amuse themselves by singing a verse of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" in various languages.
image: Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton
The second relationship consists of a married couple, the Cliftons, who have known each other since childhood. Geoffrey Clifton's pain at his wife's infidelity causes a major event in the movie's plot.
image: Almasy and Katherine
The third is a romantic relationship between Almàsy and Katherine Clifton. This is the primary love story of the film.
At one point Katherine says "In Egypt I am a different wife." This is significant both within the film and as an explanation for infidelity.
Within the film, Almàsy fantasizes that Katherine is actually his wife. He draws upon this fantasy when he convinces a British officer in Italy that he is English.
In the October 2017 Atlantic magazine, family therapist Esther Perel writes that infidelity is often caused, not by bad marriages, but because marriage does not bring out all aspects of a personality. Relationships outside a marriage allow one to be a different person.
image: Almasy and Hana
The fourth relationship is between Almàsy and Hana, a nurse who takes care of him in Italy. This is a platonic romance.
image: Hana and Kip
The fifth relationship is a romance between Hana and Kip. Kip is a Sikh whose job is to find and defuse explosives. He finds one in a piano Hana is starting to play.
Taken together these relationships give us three messages: Other relationships in the film reinforce these same messages: Arab nomads save Almàsy's life for no other reason` than that he is a fellow human in need. Kip is very close to his coworker sergeant although the sergeant is from a very different cultural background.
But that's not all the film offers. You get to see biplanes flying over the desert.
image: Flying Over Desert
and a cave with prehistoric drawings of swimmers
image: Cave of the Swimmers
This cave actually exists in the Libyan desert and was discovered by the real life Almàsy.
To summarize: “The English Patient” is well-made film which delivers the above three messages in an easily digestible and visually appealing form.
J Adrian Zimmer
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