At the close of WWII, a young nurse tends to a badly-burned plane crash victim. His past is shown in flashbacks, revealing an involvement in a fateful love affair.
The ingredients most likely to give a critic indigestion are fatty emotions and over-ripened sentimentality. And so it was that The English Patient succeeded so magnificently, both critically and to the tune of £12 million at the UK box office. And yet, in its ambition to underplay every emotional nuance (except for Ralph Fiennes' visceral outburst late in the film), it ultimately under-performs.
While the film offers understatement, the critics have preferred to overstate its merits. The story recounts the journey of the mysterious Count Almasy (Fiennes), a cartographer of uncertain nationality who is dragged, badly burned and half-dead, from the wreckage of his bi-plane at the tail end of World War II. As he is placed under the care of Canadian army nurse Hana (Oscar-winner Binoche) to live out the final days of the war in a dilapidated Italian villa, a magnificent story unravels (in flashback) of his illicit love for a married woman, Katharine Clifton (Scott-Thomas).
Simultaneously, Hana is completing her own emotional journey with the help of a bomb disposal officer (Naveen Andrews with whom she shares one of the truly classic scenes in the film), and occupational thief Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) appears out of nowhere to question the elusive Almasy, suspecting him of being the spy who helped the Germans to get their men into the Sahara.
There is a compelling lack of emotional involvement here: the brief flashes of unbridled feeling certainly hit home, and when they come, they excise quickly any doubt about the effectiveness of Fiennes, but still we care little for this underwhelming Count Almasy and his flighty, faintly irritating, inamorata Katharine Clifton. Some might argue that this is deliberate and is true to an "unfilmable" novel (Booker Prize-winner by Michael Ondaatje) but on the small screen, the majestic vistas of vanilla deserts and blistering sunsets are mere Discovery Channel fodder and do not make up for the low-fat epic romance.
Here is passion that merely blisters the heart rather than blasts it asunder. After a heart-stopping, nine Academy Award-winning, six Bafta scooping and two Golden Globe-grabbing journey to classic status, there is an unthinking consensus about The English Patient which belies its true quality.
It does not deserve limitless adoration. Just quiet, reasoned admiration.