Sweeping Passion -- `Patient' Is Burning Love Story With Sophistication, Intelligence

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XXX 1/2 "The English Patient," with Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Naveen Andrews. Directed and written by Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje. Alderwood, Crossroads, Guild 45th, Kirkland Parkplace, Renton Village. "R" - Restricted, due to violence, nudity, mature subject matter. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Could this possibly be the "Casablanca" of the late 20th century?

Direct comparisons would inevitably prove awkward, but "The English Patient" offers to filmgoers of 1996 the same level of intelligence, sophistication and sweeping passion that the Bogart-Bergman classic gave to audiences of 1942. Here, at last, is a fateful, tragic love story that doesn't lose its head while its heart - described by the title character as "an organ of fire" - burns as hot as the desert sun.

World War II is nearly over or about to start, depending on the flowing thoughts and returning memories of a badly burned pilot whose plane had been shot down by the Germans over the North African Sahara during the closing days of the war. Stricken with amnesia and possessing only a volume of Greek history that contains personal keys to his past, the pilot - identified only as "English Patient" - is taken to a ruined monastery in Tuscany, a makeshift refuge where he is cared for by Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse who fears that anyone she loves will die.

Here, by day and candlelit night, Hana will read to her patient and spark his memories, casting the film back and forth in time, feeding us details that will assemble a grand puzzle of lost souls, ancient and contemporary, searching, sometimes finding, always ablaze with the thrill of discovery.

It is a puzzle of many mysteries, gradually taking form. Flashing back to pre-war days, we see that the "English Patient" is a misnomer - that Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is in fact Hungarian, a linguist and explorer leading a geographical expedition into the deep, uncharted Sahara. The team is joined by aristocratic aviation enthusiast Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his newlywed bride Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a scholar and painter who instantly captures Almasy's attention. They remain discreetly and mutually attracted, but their histories, and their hearts, will become irrevocably intertwined.

In the monastery, love will also bloom between Hana and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh bomb disposal expert who would seem to be likely proof of Hana's alleged death curse. "The English Patient" squeezes considerable tension out of Kip's wartime duties, just as it finds great danger in the desert and additional mystery in Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a wartime thief whose own tragic story is closely linked to Almasy's.

Michael Ondaatje's complex novel has been necessarily compressed and restructured, but never in violation of the novel's overall progression. Writer-director Anthony Minghella (best known for the romantic ghost story "Truly, Madly, Deeply") has done a brilliant work of adaptation, and even the novel's staunch supporters will appreciate the discretion of Minghella's narrative sacrifice. At 162 minutes, the film takes all the time it needs to tell its story of shifting identities, of honor and betrayal. Even if you find yourself wishing for scenes from the novel that were lost in translation, you can appreciate a rich, full-blooded film that brings rare intimacy to its epic proportions.

If the film's passion seems at times more intellectual than truly heartfelt, it's only because we're challenged to keep up with the puzzle's assembly - to make an effort that won't go unrewarded. Just as he has brought personal and national histories together to arrive at a place of healing and release, Minghella has united a peerless cast and crew to bless his film with layer upon layer of visual beauty and emotional depth.

It would have been easy to turn Ondaatje's shifting timelines into a jangled mess, but Minghella - with Ondaatje's full support and cooperation - navigates a steady course to clarity. He finds it here, amidst the chaos of war and the turbulence of the human heart.