Saharan Romance and Greek Tragedy: Revisiting ‘The English Patient’

“Am I K in your book? I think I must be.”

– Katharine in The English Patient

A canary yellow plane casts its solitary shadow on the sand dunes of the Sahara. A jittery flashlight beam reveals prehistoric paintings inside the Cave of Swimmers. A fiery red flare streaks across the black sky of a desert night. The English Patient is a gorgeous film, brimming with wonders. Miramax’s video transfer to Blu-ray is beautifully done, and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack has an impressive dynamic range.

Set in Italy at the end of War World II, the film begins and ends with a man on his deathbed, burned beyond all recognition, a man with no name. His nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), refers to him simply as the ‘English patient’, yet that’s not right, for this burned husk of a man is Count Laszlo Almasy, a Hungarian explorer, cartographer, and pilot.

Revealed in flashback, the plot focuses on Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and his desert expedition with the Royal Geographic Society. Almasy is a classically trained geographer who despises the idea of national borders and rejects the very concept of possession. In short, he stands in defiance of the dark zeitgeist of his era, which eventually destroys him.

During the expedition to the Sahara, Almasy is introduced to a British couple, Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) and her husband Geoffrey.

Katharine: Geoffrey gave me your monograph on the way here, very impressive. I wanted to meet the man who could write such a long paper with so few adjectives.

Almasy: A thing is still a thing, no matter what you put in front of it. Big car, slow car, chauffer-driven car… it’s still a car.

Katharine: Love? There’s romantic love, platonic love, familial love… quite different things, surely.

Almasy: Now there you have me.

Katharine challenges him intellectually. And by carefully reading Almasy’s work, she seems to know him intimately. Katharine is a beautiful, independent woman, whether she’s exploring the Sahara or fearlessly wandering through the Arab market in Cairo. Almost against his will, Almasy falls deeply in love with her.

And there’s the rub. By falling in love with Katharine, Almasy is at odds with his own persona. He’s a man who doesn’t believe in possessions, but he must possess her. He buys her a thimble of saffron at the Arab market. They spend days together in Almasy’s Cairo apartment, where Katharine is just as conflicted.

Almasy: When were you the happiest?

Katharine: Right now.

Almasy: When were you the saddest?

Katharine: Right now.

Minghella understands the subtle interplay between two lovers, and what lingers in memory long after the affair ends: the hushed quiet of a Cairo morning; the Hungarian folk music in Almasy’s apartment; torrid, forbidden sex followed by the intimacy of a shared bath. These scenes are shot in soft light, which reflects Almasy’s morphine-tinged memories.

Katharine abruptly ends the affair, which has become a badly kept secret within the close-knit culture of the Royal Geographic Society. Almasy lashes out, treating Katharine with bitter disdain.

When a shattered Almasy returns to the Sahara, he asks his British colleague about the secret geography of a woman’s body, as if he could map it:

Almasy: That part of a woman…the tiny depression below the neck. What’s that called?

Madox: Pull yourself together.

History is unkind to these thwarted lovers. When war breaks out, Almasy is forced to choose sides. The English Patient has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. Almasy sells the Germans his desert maps, betraying his British colleagues. He does this to save the woman he loves—the British Katharine.

Any Greek chorus will confirm that betrayal leads to violence and death. When the cuckolded Geoffrey takes his revenge in the desert, Katharine is grievously wounded.

Katharine: Why did you hate me?

Almasy: (voice cracking) You’re…wearing the saffron thimble that I gave you.

Katharine; Of course I’m wearing it — I always wear it. I’ve always loved you.

This desperate, heart-rending confession breaks Almasy. The cool, self-possessed aristocrat is gone forever. Overwhelmed with grief, Almasy carries the wounded Katharine to the Cave of Swimmers.

At some point a critic must lay his cards on the table, and so I declare: This is the greatest love scene in all of cinema. I cannot think of a single moment, not one celluloid moment that matches the power and tragedy of this scene. Not the airfield ending in Casablanca, nor Brando howling for Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and don’t even mention the sinking Titanic. This is it.

Near the end of the film, Hana reads from Katharine’s diary to the dying Almasy.

Hana: Who is Katharine? Did you love her?

Almasy: She was my wife.

A fitting contradictory ending—a lie reveals a truth. Has any man ever loved a woman more?

Note: Extras include an extended interview with the novelist Michael Ondaatje; a brief documentary on the historical Laszlo Almasy, and director’s commentary.

RATING 8 / 10