The English Patient

Screenplay by Anthony Minghella
(Miramax Films, 1996)

Reviewed by Jennifer A. Fremlin

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 2, March 1997 (pp. 86-87).

Copyright © 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

Motion picture technology has been linked historically to colonialism and exploration: many early films were Western ethnographic records of the Other. The English Patient deals with an anti-technological cartographer who would rather draw his maps of the North African deserts based on the testimony of the native inhabitants than on aerial photographs. He believes in the past, and in writing, and pastes into a copy of Herodotus's history pieces and fragments, poems and paintings, in an effort to record a place. But for all this character's touted antipathy toward modernism and its advances, The English Patient is fully invested in the technology of cinema, of moving images and the ubiquitous all-seeing eye of the camera.

The film opens with a shot of a paintbrush moving, painter unseen, across a parchment. The next image, which provides the mysterious center of the movie (a mystery which the movie's job it is to solve), is of what turns out to be undulating, almost body-like sand from the point of view of an old plane, which the movie also captures. But a second plane, the one carrying the camera, leaving no shadow or trace, is the implicit recorder of this scene. The authority of our cinema, to record more fully than travel-writing of an earlier time, is established. For the duration of the viewing experience, it is never fully released.

The English Patient is based on Michael Ondaatje's 1992 Booker-prize-winning novel of the same name. Ondaatje, born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) of parents of Russian descent, was educated in England, and moved to Canada when he was nineteen. Issues of nationality and home surface in both book and movie. The "English" patient (starring Ralph Fiennes in the misnamed title role), shot down in North Africa and now dying in Italy, turns out to be a Hungarian self-exile, the Count de Almasy, a man trying to forget or fashion his home. Other characters in the movie are similarly displaced persons. Hana (Juliette Binoche), the nurse who tends him, is from Montreal, as is an enigmatic man, David "Moose" Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who steals morphine. The other main character in Tuscany, Kip (Naveen Adams), is an Anglophilic Sikh who defuses bombs. The Cliftons, the married couple who form a sexual triangle with Almasy, are Brits. In the desert, Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife, speaks longingly of English gardens and rainy climes. The Second World War, a conflict about boundaries, has shaken up the very concept of nationality for these characters.

On its most obvious level, the movie is a grand, romantic story played out against the backdrop of war--pace Dr Zhivago, A Farewell to Arms, Casablanca. Secondary plots include other loves, and almost incidentally the machinations of intrigue and strategy of the times. Almasy is a loner who prefers his journal and old Bedouins to the company of his peers. He crosses the boundary he has set for himself when he falls in love with Katharine. Her husband also makes maps, but in a new-fangled way, from the air, and for purposes of war. Africa means different things for the two men. For Almasy, Africa--like Katharine, and much like the nineteenth-century conceptualization of Africa as the dark continent's mysterious and ever-shifting, impossible to understand and a test of his masculinity. For Katharine's husband, it is merely land to be recorded scientifically for his country and a means to conquering.

We learn of these people's triangulated relationship in flashback. In the movie's present, Italy in 1944, Fiennes's patient is a burned, scarred, dying cipher being fed morphine by his own Florence Nightingale. Fittingly, his face, the flesh burned away, as we learn, in the opening scene's plane crash, appears to be veined with lines like a map (the make-up, as the credits reveal, incongruously created by Jim Henson's company). The film, like the book, proceeds indirectly, backtracking and remapping, in its efforts to lead us ultimately to its destination--the heart of the story, hidden like the woman in the Cave of Swimmers. The movie thus maps the path that desire traces across bodies. As Katharine tells Almasy, bodies are the "real countries." The movie's concern with mapping is shared by Ethiopian writer Nuruddin Farah. In his novel Maps, the central character says, "The joy of travel, you say to yourself, there is nothing like it. The joy of open spaces, that's divinity itself." While it may be true that, as Hana claims, during a war "where you come from becomes important," in this film, the open spaces of the desert and the human heart that beckon to the traveler ultimately prove that all roads lead back to the same place, to the body unable to escape its own mortality.