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January 7, 1997

ROMANCE, ART, INTRIGUE / Plus some sex and action; `English Patient' heals jaded hearts

Copyright 1997 Wilmington Star-News, Inc.

By BEN STEELMAN, Staff writer



 Rated: R Now playing: Through Thursday, Thalian Hall

Review: * * * *


It has landscapes and vistas on a scale of Lawrence of Arabia, romance, intrigue, enough plot to pack three novels and more than a little sex. For an ``artsy'' movie, The English Patient has nearly universal appeal - enough to make it one of the few films of the 1990s one really, truly has to see.

 The setting: A bombed-out monastery in Italy near the end of World War II. In a bed lies the English patient (although he's probably not English), a horribly burned pilot pulled from a wrecked biplane by bedouins in North Africa.

 He can't remember his name (or claims he can't), but he speaks fluent German, knows almost every song imaginable and spins elaborate stories of the Sahara Desert from his one possession, a battered copy of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus, packed with photos and mementoes.

 Tending him is Hana, a Canadian nurse with her own set of wounds; too many of her friends and loved ones were killed in the war, so she imagines herself a jinx.

 Then others arrive: A mystery man who calls himself Caravaggio (the name of an Italian painter with a violent past) who says he's a thief and who might be a spy; and a bomb-disposal expert, an Indian Sikh, whose nickname, Kip, echoes Rudyard Kipling's Kim, a book that Hana reads to her patient.

 That's the set-up, but, as the old joke goes, that's like saying Hamlet is about a guy who can't get along with his mother. The movie sprawls over more than a decade, into tales of old Cairo, of desert explorers who might or might not be spies - and of the torrid romance between a Hungarian count, Almasy, and a lonely and achingly beautiful married Englishwoman.

 The script takes liberties, to put it mildly, with the novel by Michael Ondaatje, which won the Booker Prize, Britain's equivalent to the Pulitzer for fiction.

 But that's inevitable: The novel curves back and forth upon itself, beginning in its middle and leading heaven knows where. Michael Ondaatje is a published poet and his lyrical, almost metric style seems nearly intranslatable into an ordinary script.

 What's amazing, though, is how much the writer-director, Anthony Minghella, managed to save. Images that readers will treasure - Hana's hopscotch in the monastery garden, Almasy's monologue about desert winds and the nature of reading, the desert healer with his hundreds of tiny medicine bottles hanging from a yoke around his neck - survive the transition to big screen remarkably well.

 Where the script must improvise, Mr. Minghella almost always makes an inspired choice: for instance, having his English patient wrapped and unwrapped like a mummy from another age.

 Most moviegoers will know Mr. Minghella from Truly, Madly, Deeply, his witty, poignant little comedy about a woman's romance with a ghost. Comparing it to The English Patient, though, is like jumping from a delicate painted porcelain to the Parthenon friezes. It is a remarkable achievement - an epic yarn that is also an elegy on love, loss and the heart's capacity for healing.

 The photography is gorgeous; the aerial sequences, with tiny biplanes floating over dunes that curve like naked bodies, recall the amazing scenes from Out of Africa. The score, by Gabriel Yared, while incorporating Arabic and Hungarian folk motifs, has the full body of a '40s Hollywood melodrama.

 And the performances are outstanding. Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List) undergoes another sea change, playing the Patient under heavy makeup. Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Blue) makes a radiant Hana; Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral), as a woman of some little mystery in spy-ridden Cairo, convinces us that she could inspire betrayal.

 Willem Dafoe (Platoon) plays Caravaggio. Naveen Andrews, a British-born actor of Indian ancestry, earns his star as a romantic lead as the tender Kip.

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