I saw “The English patient” again recently and was delighted to rediscover how wonderful a movie it is. It’s a story set in (the deserts of) Egypt and Libya in the period just before and up to the end of World War II. It centers of the love affair between Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian map maker with the Royal Geographical Society and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who with her husband, Geoffrey (the perennially cuckolded) Colin Firth had joined the cartographers on one of their expeditions.
The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, to the now dying, broken-hearted Almasy who, having been shot down by Germans lies horribly burned and disfigured, in a British medical unit in Italy. He pretends to have lost his memory and (having been branded a German spy) conveniently cannot remember his name. He is just the –anonymous- English patient. Hana (Juliette Binoche), his French Canadian nurse, has taken pity on his agony from being moved around and sequesters them both in a deserted monastery even as her troop trundles onward to Florence. And it is there that this man without a face, without a name, without a memory, remembers and recounts the story of his love.
That Almasy is a cartographer is significant. His job is to map boundaries and locations; to circumscribe the perimeters of countries and yet he and Katherine share the impossible romance of living a borderless life – a pre-war romantic ideal that dies with the war. “We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers…” she writes in her diary as she lies dying in a cave where Almasy has left her to find help. “…we’re the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men…an earth without maps”
Is this a naïve fantasy or the reality of love? For really, the world is a world of maps; and the war breaks into this snug cocoon. Almasy’s foreign sounding name creates immediate suspicions and he is incarcerated by the English who label him Fritz the German. In order to rescue Katherine in her cave, he escapes and exchanges his maps – his borders – to the Germans for an aircraft. The Hungarian count who sees himself as a borderless mapmaker is branded German by the English and is finally shot down by the Germans who assume he’s English. It is the logic of the war: pick a side and kill the others.
But love will out; Minghella offers us a story that by juxtaposing the ugliness and brutality of the war with the sudden and unexpected flowering of love and passion, we are offered glimpses of the borderlessness of love in this world governed by borders. The idea is played out also with Hana, who has (literally) cloistered herself with Almasy in an attempt to escape from the horror of the death all around her (her lover and one of her best friends have suddenly been killed). But there, in the cloister with this dying man, she befriends a Sikh bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews, of “Lost” fame) and an unexpected flame is kindled between the two of them.
We’re pointedly reminded of the racial/national/religious gulf between these two. She a white Christian French Canadian; he a black Sikh, turbaned Indian. But their romance transcends these petty barriers (the same petty barriers at war with each other on the global stage). At one point, Kip eulogizes a friend of his who has suddenly been killed: “he never once asked me if I could spin the ball at cricket, the Karma Sutra…”
Minghella emphasizes the parallels in the two (essentially doomed) relationships. Almasy and Katheine fall in love in a cave (where she dies) in the presence of magical prehistoric drawings of people who seem to be swimming (there in the middle of the desert…talk about an image of borderlessness!). So too Kip and Hana fall in love in a darkened church where Kip swings Hana around from wall to wall to marvel at the Renaissance murals painted there. They flicker into life, as did the prehistoric paintings, as does their love. Iconic beauty and passions amidst the darkness of war.