”The heart is an organ of fire,” writes The English Patient’s brooding Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) about his adulterous love for the soigne Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). The luxe world-weariness, the lovers with cheekbones as high as their ardor, a ripe romantic fatalism teetering on the brink of melodramatic spoilage — no wonder Anthony Minghella wanted to direct this movie.
It’s slightly unfair, then, that Patient’s success hasn’t rubbed off on the man who made it. Okay, Minghella won an Oscar for Best Direction, and, yes, this onetime teacher and playwright can write his own ticket in Hollywood for now, but to the average weekend renter, Patient, which finally hits video this week, will probably seem like one of those wonders that directed itself. Those in the literary know have focused on Michael Ondaatje’s luminous original novel; those who prize beautiful performers doing beautiful things fixate on Fiennes, Scott Thomas, and the ethereal, Oscar-winning Juliette Binoche, who plays Hana, a World War II nurse caring for the dying Almasy as he relives his epic love in flashback.
But there are a handful of us lucky to have seen Minghella’s first feature film, 1991’s resplendently wiggy Truly, Madly, Deeply. And there’s an even smaller band hardy enough to have sat through his second, 1993’s excruciating Mr. Wonderful. To the members of the Minghella Appreciation Society, The English Patient confirms what we already knew: The guy is in love with love, and the more extreme, the better.
At the least, you owe yourself the enjoyment of watching English Patient on a two-night double bill with Truly, Madly, Deeply, since the earlier film packs every bit of the latter’s intense amour fou into a smaller, modern, more domestic arena. Released not long after the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore hit Ghost, Truly was championed by some as a British improvement on the subject, since it concerns a woman (Emma’s Juliet Stevenson) so gutted by grief for her deceased lover (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ Alan Rickman) that he really has to come back from the dead to see how she’s getting on.
The pleasures of Truly, Madly, Deeply are many: the whimsical view of an afterlife where one finally has time to take those Spanish lessons, a sense for the fluidity of national and corporeal boundaries akin to English Patient’s polyglot passions, and career-defining performances from Rickman and Stevenson, the latter of whom makes sorrow, rage, and hope positively tactile.
It’s surprising, then, that Mr. Wonderful is so resolutely untouching. Minghella’s first Hollywood foray casts Matt Dillon as a mulish Noo Yawk hard hat trying to marry off ex-wife Annabella Sciorra so he can use the alimony to buy into a bowling alley; the catch, of course, is that he’s still nuts for her. But Minghella films thrive on mad love, and this lug is just…grouchy. Worse, Michael Gore’s greeting-card score isn’t worthy of a TV movie, and the tourist’s-eye view of Brooklyn results in howlers like a love scene set on the Gowanus Expressway.
With The English Patient, of course, all is forgiven: It’s the rare film whose emotions and ideas are as vast as its physical scale. Minghella’s strengths come to the fore here, especially his intelligent use of music to convey mood (Gabriel Yared’s magnificent score deservedly won an Oscar) and his cool yet intoxicated take on the consequences of passion.
Unfortunately, though, this is a movie that works better in a movie theater: On video, it’s harder for Patient to wrap around your head and sway you into its doomed dance. The film’s allegiance to Pommy old movie melodramas is clearer with the lights on and the phone ringing, and there are times when Fiennes’ and Scott Thomas’ stiff-upper-lip lust (”Darling…my darling…”) veers toward self-parody.
Well, it’s meant to be old-fashioned, to a degree. Almasy and Katharine suffer so that a postwar generation of Hanas can move on and find love free of romantic and national prejudices. Patient’s abstract final frames are open-ended, curiously moving, and raise as much expectation for Anthony Minghella’s next move as for his characters’. He could make something wonderful. Or he could make something Wonderful. A-