So Ondaatje is lucky in his adapter, because Minghella is a storybook moviemaker--indeed, he wrote all the episodes of the Emmy Award-winning Jim Henson's The Storyteller. One medieval fable (as collected in a later book version) began with a Samuel Johnson quote appropriate for The English Patient ("Life protracted is protracted woe") and ended with a vision of its hero wandering "as we all do, between Heaven and Hell," always falling an inch short of Paradise because he succeeded in scaring Death, and doing his dance of death-in-life "just before sleep, or at places where sand meets sea, land meets sky." The magic hour is Minghella's metier, whether it marks the twilight of a life or a day; no one is better at the limbo rock. There's an expressive otherworldliness to the fleeting shots of the Bedouins tending to Almasy; they cover his face with a mask of plaited palms that both makes him seem a primordial tribesman and fractures his view of the universe. At least Almasy knows that he reached Paradise, in the arms of Katherine. And as Katherine, Kristin Scott Thomas fills the screen with her brainy sensuality--after stealing Angels & Insects just a few months ago in the role of a supposed plain-Jane.
The film's editor, Walter Murch, must have collaborated closely with Minghella on the movie's graceful, intuitive transitions between past and present; these cement the connections made in the script between distant sounds and sights. Along with cinematographer (and camera operator) John Seale, a virtuoso of vistas and filigree, they create a marvelous rag-and-bottle shop of the mind with the story's tactile elements: tinkling morphine cylinders and a Bedouin healer's clanking glass jars; a bracelet worn by one of Hana's dead friends, and a thimble Katherine transforms into a necklace. Murch has written that one of the tasks of an editor is extending the rhythms of a good actor "into territory not covered by the actor himself." So his peak contribution may have been the exquisite showcase Minghella provides for Thomas. From the moment Katherine steps down from her plane into the desert, Thomas evinces a barely contained vitality that puts everyone around her on a joyous red alert. Even Fiennes' glowering Almasy perks up in her presence. It's futile for him to use his courtly distance as a shield against sexual attraction, so his aristocratic dourness takes on a comic edge. When they're thrown together during a sandstorm, and Almasy, unable to resist flirtation, recites a litany of fabled winds, his change is gratifying in an old-Hollywood way--the woman next to me sighed and asked, "Why is he so cute all of a sudden?" Well, it's partly because of Thomas, who brings a complete carnal consciousness to the erotic scenes, which are full of torment as well as rapture. Thomas makes you believe that Katherine can hold two clashing ideas in her head and two men in her heart; when she's bathing with Almasy, and includes her husband in a list of things she loves, the feeling is tender and rueful.
Minghella has a gift for outsized emotion. When Kip attaches Hana to a rig that sends her bobbing in the air around church frescoes, she's the embodiment of euphoria; and Katherine and Almasy's tragic reunion has an epic heartbreak (too bad Gabriel Yared's inflated music mars its purity). The character of Almasy, a man's man who learns there's more danger and mystery in the indentation of a woman's neck (her "suprasternal notch") than there is in a desert cave, a stiff-necked idealist whom tragedy humanizes, could become--scar tissue and all--a yuppie fantasy figure. His long leavetaking from Earth, and the solace of his recollected passion, will touch chords with baby boomers who've lost friends to illnesses like AIDS, or parents to age. There are moments in The English Patient when its blend of time-hopping wit and fierce literacy and poignantly-used pop music begs comparison to The Singing Detective.