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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intimate Epic in the Golden Desert

"The heart is an organ of fire."


These words, uttered by a dying man burned beyond recognition, indeed beyond the reach of almost everything human, except memory, are the key to the intricate mysteries and complex narrative strands that make up "The English Patient," which premieres in Moscow at the Kodak Cinema World on Tuesday with its nine Oscars in tow.


Based on the novel by poet-novelist Michael Ondaatje, "The English Patient" presents the story of Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian geographer whose mapmaking work in the Egyptian desert in the last days of peace before World War II leads to a fateful affair with a colleague's wife, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), and later encounters with a death-haunted nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche) and an enigmatic "thief," Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) in an abandoned Italian monastery in the final days of the war. The tale is told through a kaleidoscope of flashbacks, in scenes that rely on mood and image -- not straightforward exposition -- to provide meaning and connection to the purposefully disjointed story line. It is a tribute to director Anthony Minghella -- and to the terrific performances by the actors -- that the film survives this risky method to achieve a satisfying emotional coherence in the end.


However, it is an axiom of cinematic biology that a pair of star-crossed lovers will invariably consume most of the narrative oxygen in any given story, and such is the case here. The tortured romance between Almasy and Katherine overshadows -- or outshines -- the other two main plot lines involving Hana and Caravaggio. Fiennes is at his darkly brooding best here, and Thomas gives a performance for the ages, brilliantly conveying a perfect balance of cool British elegance and rich sensual passion. With love scenes and anguished partings in evocative Cairo settings, in golden deserts and mysterious caves, the affair blazes with old-movie glamour, while the two actors' intensity gives it a vitality and realism that the rest of the film cannot match.


Binoche commands interest, of course, with her wonderfully expressive face and her intelligent beauty. And Hana's involvement with Kip, a Sikh bomb-disposal expert (well played by Naveen Andrews), provides the film with its most gentle and hopeful moments. But Hana's destiny, laden with tragedies of its own, seems somewhat scant of context and does not quite engage the viewer at the deepest levels. Caravaggio's story -- an investigation of betrayal and justice -- although essential to the overall mosaic of the film, does not really come off at all, and Dafoe, a fine actor, is saddled with some of the movie's few bad lines and unrealized scenes. But these lapses and lessenings, imbedded as they are in a work of genuine cinematic art, do no real harm.


Although Ondaatje is a strikingly original writer, Minghella's film adaptation of his work is largely derivative -- in the best sense. In fact, the movie can almost be seen as an homage to the great British director David Lean. Many of Lean's themes and images are strongly echoed here: tragic love, war-torn separations, epic journeying; criss-crossed loyalties, clashing cultures; and the use of nature as a major character, as a site of mystery, a field of battle, an arena for spiritual testing. These are all familiar elements from "Doctor Zhivago," "A Passage to India" and "Lawrence of Arabia." It is most heartening to see this rarely practiced film tradition, combining vast physical and historical scope with deeply private concerns -- the "intimate epic," as it's been dubbed -- revived with such power and craftsmanship.


The film's moral sense has been criticized in some quarters; there was a real Count Almasy, and the extent of his questionable wartime activities may have been glossed over in this fictional account. Even so, "The English Patient" does not shy away from the moral dilemmas faced by its characters -- those ancient, terrifying questions that confront us all: What price love? What price loyalty? Can we bear the consequences and the unforeseen ends of our decisions? The "answers" provided here are dark, ambiguous, conflicted -- and richly human.


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