A deceptive beauty

The English Patient; Anthony Minghella (15)
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The English Patient is the first film for a long time to work the Casablanca trick of making audiences care more about the problems of a few little people than about a whole collapsing world. Anthony Minghella has successfully turned Michael Ondaatje's novel into a workable cinematic narrative, and found a visual language that can do justice to it without being too indebted to the poetism of the original.

The result is relentlessly beautiful, but not quite stupifyingly so. It is a beauty that can be deceptive or else poignant. We see a white road like something in an Impressionist painting, but it is booby-trapped with mines. Yes, the omelette that the Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) whips up for the mysterious invalid of the title looks like the cover of a cook book, with its garnish of herbs just so, but that may be the only way of uniting the perceptions of the wartime characters, who haven't seen an egg for years, with those of viewers, who worry about salmonella.

The story has two settings - north Africa before the Second World War and Tuscany towards the end of it. Two configurations of beauty, then, one harsh and one more nurturing, with equivalent female figures in Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a fiercely independent English woman, and Hana with her madonna smile. The contrast between the actresses is fascinating, with Binoche unusually unselfconscious, hacking briskly at her hair while looking out of a window that she then shuts with her foot, and Scott Thomas conveying her distinctive aphrodisiac impatience, the self possession that says: yes, yes, if you insist I'm lovely, now can we talk about something interesting?

Minghella cuts or fades with great inventiveness between the two periods, sometimes letting a noise cue at the transition, sometimes using a visual pun, such as a shot of rumpled sheets that resemble ivory dunes. Linking the two settings is the horribly burnt "English patient" (Ralph Fiennes), who gradually remembers his life before the war, when he was actually a Hungarian count called Almasy exploring the Sahara on an expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society - an expedition that included the lovely (and married) Katharine.

Almasy is mysteriously different before and after the crash that burnt him. In north Africa he was withdrawn and largely humourless - as a lover of deserts and hater of agitatives he brings TE Lawrence to mind, though we are shown that he has only a strained approval of love between men. After the burning that has left his face disfigured with a web of scars, his calcified lips straining to take in the pulp of a plum, he has a dry wit and a my-dear-boy persona - as if merely being thought to be English was enough to instill a tincture of Noel Coward.

It's only in romances, of course, that suffering is good for the sense of humour, or that love makes people imaginative. There's an awful lot of contrivance in The English Patient - the film is like the monestary piano that Hana plays at one point. Precariously balanced on rubble and with a landmine inside it, but with all the notes working and even miraculously in tune. Almasy's inexorable dying over a period of years is hard to swallow, as is the coincidence of being tracked down by a Canadian thief (Willem Dafoe) with a score to settle. But Minghella's touch is so sure that it feels the other way round, not that we're swallowing something a bit rich but that something is swallowing us, a mighty foaming Jacuzzi of precarious feeling.

Though Minghella is a writer as well as a film-maker, there's nothing literary about his approach here. He has no track record as an action director, but the moments of violence are extremely well done, all the better for being dispatched abruptly and not turned into set pieces. When he does want to build tension, he can do it - one sequence of torture, and a scene of a Sikh bomb-disposal expert under pressure - he just doesn't do it for its own empty sake. He uses music as the indispensable manipulative force that movies have always known it to be, but without crassness.

When Minghella's first film, Truly Madly Deeply, came out, it seemed like a British riposte to the banalities of Ghost, and to represent a sort of emotional truthfulness, romanticism that would choose prose over poetry. It would be hard to make those claims for the lush melodrama of The English Patient, which comes much closer to traditional Hollywood territory. Everyone complains about the north African heat, yet sweat is visible only on special occasions, specifically as a shine of dampness on the part of Katharine's body that most obsesses Almasy, the hollow at the base of her throat (he learns that it is called the supersternal notch). At one point, Almasy walks across the desert for three days, and still looks so good that many men in the audience will add Sahara tramping to their workout regimes.

Even so, Minghella manages to sound the occasional unexpected note. Many men in the movies have torn women's clothes in the eagerness of their passion, but Almasy must be the first screen hero to do some mending afterwards (even if his sewing is less than exquisite). And there is one moment of glorious rule breaking, when Katharine, having broken off with Almasy, does something truly unforgettable as she makes an exit that is meant to haunt his memory. She bangs her head on a piece of scaffolding. In life, Romeo and Juliet is always being interrupted by You've Been Framed!.

The clearest change in the years between Casablanca and The English Patient is a plummeting in the share price of self-sacrifice. Katharine's choosing to stay with a husband who calls her his "sausage" is inadequately motivated - it's just a pretext for the romantic disaster to come. But even on the larger level of a film set around one of the century's few candidates for the label of a just war, self-sacrifice has no meaning. If Bogart's Rick had helped the axis powers, Casablanca would have become an impossible object, but in The English Patient the hero can give plans to the Nazis and be forgiven, even by a man who has been obsessed ever since by the desire to kill himn

On general release from tomorrow