This succulent film, winner of a considerable number of awards, is probably one of those few cinematic adaptations which rise above their literary sources. An unsurprising assessment given that the whole premise is standard modern novel fare: shortly after the Second World War, a severely burned patient (Ralph Fiennes), English only in manner and mastery of the language, lies in a hospital bed in an Italian villa and tells a tale of love lost. His nurse (Juliette Binoche) indulges him knowing all the while that even in these pacific surroundings he will not last more than a month. The narrative unfolds in pieces, flashbacks of moments that mattered to the Patient, points of emotions and thoughts that seem now, in death’s proximity, essential to understanding his personality and soul. There is nothing original nor offensive about such a premise, which is ultimately a diary composed by a mystery writer with aesthetic pretensions. The payoff will not nearly be as scintillating as the telling, but that we already know as well.
Over time we come to see that the so-called English Patient is really a Hungarian, Count László de Almásy, and that the love of his short life was a married woman called Katherine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas). Katherine’s fate can only have been tragic in light of the apathy with which the Count faces his final days, but this again is no surprise. Something so designed for disaster can only be redeemed by art, beautiful prose and ideas woven into lush scenery that spread like nymphaeaceae across a lake. Speaking at length pains the Count, a devoted student of this Greek historian; so in good literary fashion he shrouds his desires and thoughts in paradigms lifted from books more real to him than the life he is about to relinquish. In this type of situation even poems, the most touching that his mind could retain, would not be out of place. But we do not get poems. The film’s late director smartly substitutes pictures for scenes, especially between Katherine and her lover, and allows his talented cast to improvise on the standard forbidden wartime love theme that in lesser hands could easily have succumbed to some of cinema’s most tedious clichés. Fiennes and Thomas are not only superb, they are convincing both as a couple (which is easy given their chemistry) and as individuals who will themselves towards doom all the while persuaded that what they have cannot be anything less than right. The scenes in North Africa, where the real Almásy spent years researching ethnographic obscurities, are gorgeous and filled with just enough chiaroscuro to reinvent the patterns they loosely follow. Predictably, Katherine’s husband (Colin Firth) is a pitiable creature who is the Hungarian’s inferior in every way; but Almásy is not without his faults. For all his talent and culture he cannot see how destructive love can be when it becomes a matter of concealment and adventure. You have nothing when you are not ready to or simply cannot show the world in whose arms you truly wish to die. And he and Katherine, so in love yet so aware of how unfair life has been, have barely more than that.
Without huddling another work under this review’s shade, I should add that the strength of the film, Katherine and Almásy, is watered down in the book to an affair parallel to another love story, as if mimicking the quartet format made popular by this famous man of letters. The nurse, whose name is Hana, spends a great deal of the novel intertwined with the sapper Kip (Naveen Andrews), an Anglo-Indian who provides a convenient postcolonial touchstone for the novel’s themes. Kip is a wise and thoughtful figure, often brooding so that his mood matches the color of his skin – a horrific cliché which should tell you exactly how little effort was put into making him original. Moreover, as a sapper, it is his task to remove the mines placed beneath the good earth by the barbarian Europeans whose languages he speaks and whose women he has loved. I should and will leave the matter at that. There is also another character of considerable force bearing the name of an Italian painter (Willem Defoe). If the film were an engine, he would certainly be the wrench that derails the whole exercise and makes a few decisions that can only be described as cowardly. The agenda of this Caravaggio, like that of art itself, is gain. But while an artist wants to gain in talent and experience to achieve self-perfection, this Caravaggio has no qualms about selling people off for a handful of silver. And maybe he keeps his hands stretched out towards the sky just a bit too long.