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-by Roy Anker


An Exaltation of Hearts

The English Patient well deserves the fulsome praise critics have bestowed, and then some. Filmmaking like this happens but rarely. Indeed, from the first frames on, the film does not so much tell a story as cast a spell.

This achievement is very largely the work of screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella, who adapted Michael Ondaatje's best-selling novel, the 1992 winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. The nonlinear and densely poetic character of Ondaatje's tragic love story made it an unlikely candidate for the dicey task of translation to the screen. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Minghella has somehow managed to crawl inside the "spirit" of the novel, helped along the way by the novelist and Saul Zaentz, Hollywood's notably literary producer(Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

Romance is one of the hardest events to render on the screen or, for that matter, anywhere else. Perfect pitch is required, and most often filmmakers dodge between tough carnal realism, consisting mostly of fevered rutting, and a fantasyland where pretty people stroll sunset beaches to Muzak. Folks look like they are in love, so they must be; how they got there and what it means, well, take our image for it.

In an earlier film, Truly, Madly, Deeply-which explores, with uncommon insight and wit, what it means to lose a spouse and love again-Minghella had already shown a determination to avoid such glib devices. To its lasting credit,The English Patienttakes romance with the utmost seriousness, alternately charting its glory, its obtuseness, and its poignance.

The film's opening sequence, gorgeously riveting and more than a little cryptic, sets the tone for all that follows. An aging biplane flies over the undulating sand hills of the Sahara, the passenger trailing what looks to be a long silk flying scarf. Before very long, German antiaircraft fire hits the plane, igniting a searing, engulfing flare of stark white light.

The story then cuts to the dark of a troop train ...

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