The English Patient was not at all what I had originally had in mind. If I’m going to be perfectly frank, the title of the film conjured up a grim old thing about a dying fellow, sitting in a sat little chair and looking out to the dreary British weather. In truth, I do not think I could’ve been more mistaken. Most of all, I was wrong about the colours, the tone of this wonderful film.
The English Patient opens with a most beautiful scene of a man and a woman in a biplane, soaring across miles of golden desert. Suddenly, the plane is shot down, and its body engulfed in wild flames. The rest of the film acts both as prelude and postlude to this striking image; what events led these characters to this dreadful fate, and what were the ramifications of this same fate. As the true meaning of this circumstance is slowly uncovered, the composition becomes impossibly more haunting.
We discover afterwards that the man survived, albeit only just. He comes away from the accident critically burned and horribly disfigured, and is sentenced to a long and painful death. The patient eventually ends up in the care of a young nurse, Hana, who watches over him during the last days of the Second World War. We realise the man has done the impossible: he has forgotten his name, and is known only as the “English Patient” to her and to the people around him. Nevertheless, the echoes of a murky and mysterious past continue to haunt him.
As his story begins to unfold, we come to know that our hero is not, in fact, English but Hungarian. His name is (or perhaps ‘was’ is more appropriate) Count László de Almásy. A cartographer engaged in mapping the Sahara desert during the 1930s, Almásy falls in love with Katharine Clifton, the beautiful wife of a colleague. The two ultimately embark on a illicit affair under the looming shadow of the Second World War. The simile of love in war is effective, highlighting the darkness of their passion, with the affair rather interestingly reaching its startling culmination within weeks of the conflict’s end.
However, it is not one, but two stories that ultimately emerge from The English Patient. In the film’s “present-day” we also observe the developing romance of Hana and the charming Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British army. On one particular evening, Kip takes her to the beautiful Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Tuscany.
What follows is a powerful scene in which Hana is hoisted up with a flickering sparkler in her hand, thereby illuminating the beautiful frescoes all around her. That sudden appearance of magnificence and beauty as a consequence of light is, on both a visual and emotional level, wonderfully stunning.
The heart of The English Patient though is the central passion burning between Almásy and Katharine. Indeed, I think the word ‘passion’, from the latin pati meaning ‘to suffer’ is particularly apt to describe the two and their relationship. Moreover, the Sahara Desert in which they first fall in love is a perfect metaphor for the this very particular love; it is rich and barren, cold and scorching; but most of all, it is beautifully and fatally destructive.
The scene in which Almásy carries Katharine to the Cave of Swimmers envelops the viewer in this tragic poignancy. As Katharine lies dying in his arms, she declares finally her love for him. The music soars to a rousing climax, and as Katharine’s train of white fluttering lyrically in the wind, we watch the two lone figures stand starkly in relief against the empty, dramatic gold all around them; truly, it is cinema at its most powerful.