A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Backward into memory, forward into loss and desire, “The English Patient” searches for answers that will answer nothing. This poetic, evocative film version of the famous novel by Michael Ondaatje circles down through layers of mystery until all of the puzzles in the story have been solved, and only the great wound of a doomed love remains. It is the kind of movie you can see twice--first for the questions, the second time for the answers.
The film opens with a pre-war biplane flying above the desert, carrying two passengers in its open cockpits. The film will tell us who these passengers are, why they are in the plane, and what happens next. All of the rest of the story is prologue and epilogue to the reasons for this flight. It is told with the sweep and visual richness of a film by David Lean, with an attention to fragments of memory that evoke feelings even before we understand what they mean.
The “present” action takes place in Italy, during the last days of World War II. A horribly burned man, the “English patient” of the title, is part of a hospital convoy. When he grows too ill to be moved, a nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) offers to stay behind to care for him in the ruins of an old monastery. Here she sets up a makeshift hospital, and soon she is joined by two bomb-disposal experts and a mysterious visitor named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe).
The patient's skin is so badly burned it looks like tortured leather. His face is a mask. He can remember nothing. Hana cares for him tenderly, perhaps because he reminds her of other men she has loved and lost during the war. (“I must be a curse. Anybody who loves me--who gets close to me--is killed.”) Caravaggio, who has an interest in the morphine Hana dispenses to her patient, is more cynical: “Ask your saint who he's killed. I don't think he's forgotten anything.” The nurse is attracted to one of the bomb disposal men, a handsome, cheerful Sikh officer named Kip (Naveen Andrews). But as she watches him risk his life to disarm land mines, she fears her curse will doom him; if they fall in love, he will die. Meanwhile, the patient's memories start to return in flashes of detail, spurred by the book that was found with his charred body--an old leather-bound volume of the histories of Herodotus, with drawings, notes and poems pasted or folded inside.