Winner of nine Academy Awards, and my favorite movie of all time, The English Patient is bound up in the archives as a cinematic master class. Flashbacks from wartime Cairo at Christmas, the lifestyle of the International Sands Club, spies and a maddening affair are all interwoven into the present life of the English Patient as he recalls his time during war in the scraps of papers wedged into the pages of his copy of Herodotus.
Michael Ondaatje wrote the novel, with its narrative and sweeping landscape of love and war between strangers. Hanna, the nurse, believes she is cursed by the dead around her. Katherine’s world of being stuck in a military life is described here:
This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.
And the descriptions of war in its present state of the novel, which is set in Italy and Northern Africa before and during the Second World War, as well as throughout past history are delivered with a deliberation to bypass borders.
There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African—all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations.
For those cities that were great in earlier times must have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before. Man’s good fortune never abides in the same place.
The stalking love affair between Count Almasy and Katherine was born out of the author’s mind. While the character of Almasy is based on the Hungarian aristocrat of both World Wars, a pilot, Sahara explorer, cartographer and soldier—he preferred men in real life, was detained after the wars under suspicion of treason and died of dysentery in Austria in 1951.There was the mysterious death of his sponsor’s wife in a plane crash in 1933, but the two stories are unrelated, except through fiction.
Minghella pours his weight into the complexity of Ondaantje’s story. He captures all the emotional rope and string that bind people during the desperate and sacrificial measures of war. He unearths the texture of all the cultures that comprise a lifetime, their song, and their burning rubble.
Seas move away, why not lovers? The harbours of Ephesus, the rivers of Heraclitus disappear and are replaced by estuaries of silt. The wife of Candules becomes the wife of Gyges. Libraries burn. What had our relationship been? A betrayal of those around us, or the desire of another life?
The most brilliant piece of the novel that melds right into the cinema version is Katherine’s letter to Almasy at the end of her life.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fear we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.
The trailer to this film is actually very funny, as that grandiose voice of all artsy Miramax films made in the 90’s narrates the story. Great stuff.