An impressive adaptation of the dense novel by Michael Ondaatje, "The English Patient" is a sweeping epic loaded with gorgeously photographed, effectively staged set-pieces in North Africa and Italy, along with several rich and rewarding perform-ances.
Yet the film never quite engages the audience emotionally, which may be due to the fact that the central character is a rather unlikable chap. The film is enjoyable to watch - even visually stunning in places - but the muted emotions limit the moviegoing experience.
The film begins with a fascinating view of an undetermined landscape, a smooth, sculpted surface that could be marble, or perhaps even skin, before being revealed to be the never-ending Sahara desert.
"The English Patient" begins in the midst of World War II, as the title character is rescued from a plane crash. A burn victim (Ralph Fiennes) who has lost his memory, the man is taken to a medical facility and winds up in the care of an emotionally damaged Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche), who is stationed in Tuscany.
While her unit must move forward, Hana elects to stay behind and care for the patient in the ruins of a burned-out monastery. He is dying, but Hana wants to make his last days as comfortable as possible - a sort of atoning act on behalf of friends and loved ones she has lost in the war.
Soon they are joined by Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a morphine addict who is looking for the man responsible in some way for the mutilation of his hands. Is this "Englishman" the man he's looking for? Is the patient's loss of memory a convenient cover? Will he ever discover the truth?
Meanwhile, Hana falls in love with a Sikh bomb-disposal expert named Kip (Naveen Andrews), who is sniffing out landmines in the area. He is reluctant to become involved with anyone, given the potential danger of his line of work, and they both know it will be an ill-fated affair - but hey, this is wartime.
Intertwined with this story is another, equally significant tale told in flashbacks, as the patient begins to remember his past. It seems he is a Hungarian count, a mapmaker named Laszlo Almasy. Though quite the dashing adventurer, he is also aloof and humorless. And as his story unfolds in bits and pieces, we see that Almasy drifted into an affair with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of a colleague, which led to his downfall.
As is often the case in movie romances, Almasy and Katharine are complete opposites and initially quite antagonistic. In fact, he doesn't know quite what to make of this bubbly, outgoing woman who has joined their team of explorers.
But it isn't long before they begin an unlikely but torrid affair, which, naturally, has tragic consequences.
These parallel stories have their compelling elements, but neither is completely successful. And the film really begins to get sluggish about halfway through, as the flashback affair takes on routine soap-opera machinations (with an R-rated explicitness, of course).
When the film is mysterious and exotic, and when the characters are allowed to engage each other, "The English Patient" soars. And some sequences are quite spectacular, as when an overnight sandstorm buries an occupied jeep.
But too often writer-director Anthony Minghella ("Truly, Madly, Deeply," "Mr. Wonderful") lets things get flabby, and the film is too long to accommodate his excesses (nearly 2 hours, 45 minutes).
And it's annoying that the character of Kip gets short-shrift, when he is a much more important and complex personage in the book.
Still, with all the eye-popping scenery and outstanding performances, especially from Binoche and Thomas, there is much to recommend. And perhaps we should acknowledge that Minghella has accomplished no small feat in mounting an involving film from such a difficult source.
"The English Patient" is rated R for violence, hospital gore, nudity, sex, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.