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Anthony Minghella believes in ghosts -- and, at his best, makes believers out of viewers, too. The writer-director of Truly Madly Deeply and this heartfelt, eye-filling (but problematic and puzzling) adaption of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient salts his movies with passionate specters. In Truly Madly Deeply the main ghost was a musician who persuades his lover that the living must go on living and the dead must go on after-living. In The English Patient the main ghost is the title character (Ralph Fiennes), an amnesiac massive-burn victim spending his final days in a bombed-out Italian monastery near the end of the Second World War. Although literally alive he says, "I died years ago," and registers vividly as a ghost in every way, from his macabre lacework of scars to his feeling that he's gone from Earth. Under the spell of morphine and the prodding of a bitter Allied agent named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who had his thumbs shorn by the Nazis, he begins to spill out memories of a different time and place: the North African desert of the Thirties, home-away-from-home for a chivalrous cadre of explorers jocularly nicknamed the International Sand Club.
As the movie oscillates between the patient's new Gothic environment and his flashbacks of Cairo and the sands beyond, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse, becomes his dedicated friend -- despite her belief that everyone who loves her dies. Hana says, "I'm in love with ghosts. So is he. He's in love with ghosts." Before long she falls in love with a real live sapper (bomb disposal expert) from India -- a Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews) -- who also develops a comfy palship with the burned man (they banter about Kipling). Caravaggio, who suspects and confirms the worst of the patient's past, finds they share a surprising affinity. Facing up to his tragic, tortured history, the patient functions as the musician did in Truly Madly Deeply: He goads the grief-stricken survivors into accepting their unruly lives.
If this transit provides the dramatic arc of The English Patient, its emotional core comes from Minghella's inspired handling of the molten love story that bubbles up in the background. It turns out that the patient isn't English at all but Hungarian, Count Laszlo de Almasy (in the book his first name is Ladislaus), and that he wound up broken and incinerated because of his romantic devotion to a brilliant, married Brit, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). What's more, their amorous tribulations ensnared him in a skein of betrayal. Katharine's husband Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) was a fellow member of the International Sand Club and a British operative. Like Ondaatje, Minghella gives us an old theme with a modern twist: Not only is war hell, but the devils who propel it switch from side to side.
It's possible to enjoy the book for long stretches without knowing exactly what's going on. It combines stark conflict and lyric flights in a way that lifts sympathetic readers into an aesthetically charged alternate universe. Ondaatje accomplishes this feat not by florid description, wild similes, or any of the other cliched devices we associate with "lush prose," but by focusing on concrete details as sharply as any movie director -- the white marble lion Hana can see from a hospital in Pisa, or the phosphorous green of the sapper's crystal radio set. (Katharine's and Almasy's letters and journals get a bit flossy.) In his skillful adaption, Minghella manages to conjure similar heightened effects while compressing the narrative. In the opening shots a brush paints prehistoric swimmers on what could be parchment or a wall, and a man and a woman fly in a two-seater plane over the undulating desert sand. Minghella creates an atmosphere thick with poetic and erotic suggestion. With a fabulist's instinct, he sustains that atmosphere even when the story turns plodding or tricky, or when its message obtrudes.
Perhaps the clearest example of what's wrong with the original material is an episode Minghella wisely cut. In Ondaatje's novel Kip and Hana are having an idyllic affair until he hears a radio report that the U.S. has bombed Hiroshima; the Sikh sapper turns his back on her (and on his new European and American friends) out of Asian solidarity. It's an absurd twist on every level, from the individual (there's no prior sign of discord) to the political (what country did more to wreck Asia than Axis Japan?). But it caps a strain of sentimentality that runs throughout the novel's view of politics and relationships.
Ondaatje's vision of nationalism sabotaging human bonds makes it into the movie, albeit in more deft, balanced, and understated ways (not that Minghella hits on any resonant ploy to resolve Hana and Kip's romance; it ends in midair.) The International Sand Club -- the men who gather with Almasy to chart the Egyptian-Libyan desert and explore vanished worlds -- forms a utopian vision of international cooperation; twentieth-century warrior states coveting the club's maps is achingly ironic. But when Almasy and his friends wind up on opposite ends of an epochal world crisis, it's too easy for a novelist or filmmaker to blame the big bad forces of nationalism without exposing the explorers' own arrogant complacency and naivete. It should be jarring -- no, harrowing -- for us to root for anyone who satisfies personal vows and desires no matter the public consequences, to the extent of killing Allies or cooperating with Nazis. Yet the movie, like the book, ultimately dispels chaos and guilt in a fervid romanticism. It's a whitewash job done with sperm. In a penetrating review, book critic Craig Seligman -- the only one I know to call Ondaatje on his melodramatic psychology and moral-political confusion -- concluded in the New Republic: "Is he saying it all evens out? Tell it to the Jews and the Gypsies and the homosexuals. Is he saying that war is hideous? Oh. Or is he making grand gestures? Ondaatje hasn't written a novel at all, he has written a storybook, and his characters are storybook characters. That is the beauty of The English Patient, and that is where it fails." (Perhaps Ondaatje will respond to this analysis when he reads at the Miami Book Fair International this Sunday, November 24.)
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