It is part of the interest of this film that it is not easily summarized. The present tense of the film is the final year of World War II, the setting a bomb-damaged villa in the hills north of Florence, the action four characters seeking shelter there and attempting to undo some of the damage of the war.

The title character (Ralph Fiennes), whose identity is a mystery at the beginning of the film, was badly burned all over his body when his plane crashed in the desert. He lies in a bed, morphine deadening his pain and loosening his memory, reminiscing about a love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his career in military intelligence as a desert expert

The young Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), emotionally shut down as the result of her work in the war and the death of her lover, has refused to withdraw with her Red Cross unit and lovingly tends to the badly burned patient and develops an intimate relation with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh munitions expert who by day disarms unexploded mines and bombs. An American nicknamed Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a criminal who has been recruited by military intelligence, shows up and probes with increasing intensity into the mystery of the history and identity of the "English" patient, who he believes in some way responsible for the amputation of his thumbs by the Germans.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks through the point of view of the English patient, who it turns out is a Hungarian count, Laszlo Almasy, an explorer and geographer of the north African desert, who in his deep devotion to Katherine Clifton did in fact commit a treasonous act that indirectly led to Caravaggio's amputations. The film ends with Caravaggio finally forgiving the badly wounded Almasy, Hana granting Almasy's request of a peaceful death, and she herself leaving for Florence, where we expect she will meet Kip, who has just been reassigned there.


Like the lyrically written novel on which it is based, this film is at heart a story about borders (political, geographical, and domestic), the wounds caused by the conflicts they raise, and the process of healing those wounds. All the major characters in the present except Kip have been deeply wounded by a war based on national divisions, and the patient, the most obviously wounded, has lost his lover Katherine Clifton to a combination of personal and national jealousies.

In the present tense of the narrative, the patient's grotesquely scarred face and his pain are the central exhibit of the film--saying, in effect, this is the result of dividing things up stupidly. Hana's deep caring is given without knowledge of the identity of the wounded man, who, it turns out, has subverted the divisive conventions of nationality and patriotism in the name of love.

The patient's love of the desert adds resonance to this theme, the desert being to him and his fellow explorers the place that defies nationalism and allows those it attracts to devote themselves to "something finer than that." (The last wish of the dying Katherine Clifton, read from her notes by Hana: "A life without maps.") Frequent shots of planes flying through beautiful desert landscapes and images of the ancient painted images of swimming humans in a desert cave help to build the film's anti-boundary thematic foundation.

Hana's story is that of a wounded caregiver who heals herself through an almost fused, definitely against regulations relation (boundaries again) with the badly wounded Almasy, whose scorched and scarred skin looks the way we imagine she feels. For Caravaggio, healing from his anger comes partly through the confession he extracts from Almasy and partly though sympathy for Almasy's undeniably deep suffering. The film is quite true to the novel except that it spends less time developing Kip and entirely omits his sudden angry departure at the end, replacing the bleak intrusion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a mellower set of rewards for its suffering characters.


Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje. Screenplay by Anthony Minghella. Winner of many awards, including Oscar for Best Picture, Golden Globe for Best Picture-Drama, and both awards to Juliette Binoche for Best Supporting Actress.

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