Our title character is a crispy critter with an unknown background. He is played by Ralph Fiennes (which is pronounced Rafe, just so you know) here practicing for his role as Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise. At least the plane crash that burned 99.9% of his body let him keep his nose.
Not until the death of Randy "Macho Man" Savage had so many people bonded over a piece of beef jerky. The "English" patient—we'll explain the sarcastic quotes later—brings together three people who would normally never meet, puts them together in a house, and watches as things get real.
Hana, the Canadian nurse, takes care of him. Caravaggio, the thief and spy, wants to interrogate him. And Kip, the Sikh minesweeper, is indifferent, although he isn't too happy about England always wanting to tell India what to do.
He is a man waiting to die, but the three younger people in the house help him to love one last time. "I'm dying for rain," he says. "I'm dying anyway, but I… I long for the rain on my face." In one touching scene, the unlikely threesome carries the patient into the rain, granting him his wish. It is a moment when the three younger people are mourning the death of a friend, but the patient reminds them that they can still do something that makes them feel alive.
He may be waiting to die, but as he tells Caravaggio,
"You can't kill me. I died years ago."
His story doesn't actually matter to the people still alive in the house. They would be together with him even if he were a mute. But before he has Hana end his life by giving him a quadruple dose of morphine, he tells everyone his story anyway.
Before he was burned, the patient was Count Laslzo de Almásy, a mapmaker in Egypt, who was having an illicit affair with a woman named Katharine Clifton. Katharine and Almásy are like Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights… or any other pair of beauty-and-the-grouch couples. Elizabeth and Darcy. Bella and Edward. Sam and Frodo.
Almásy wouldn't describe himself as an off-putting grump, though. He would say he's "rusty at social graces." Well, that's a very eloquent way of being… an off-putting grump.
Being alone in the desert must make a man quiet. Almásy dislikes adjectives, saying,
"A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it. Big car. Slow car. Chauffer-driven car."
But when Katharine Clifton comes along, she teaches him the many adjectives of love—passionate love, lustful love, fatal love.
Almásy's hatred for adjectives gets him into trouble. He is a man who, like the wind, doesn't want to belong to any one country. He doesn't have any papers signifying who he is. When Katharine is injured in the desert, Almásy's lack of allegiance to any one nation causes English soldiers to arrest him. Because of his name, they fear he may be German.
Because of this, he has no qualms about betraying the Allies and selling information to the Germans, just to get use of a plane and take Katharine's body from the desert. And, when what remains of his identity is stripped away in a fiery crash, he's left with a new false, adjective—the English patient. "Isn't that funny?" he says. "After all that, I became English." Just like Gwyneth or Madonna.
We would assign one more adjective to him: guilty. As he dies, he feels guilty for everything he's done, mostly for Katharine dying in the desert.
"She died because of me. Because I loved her. Because I… Because I had the wrong name."
Yup. This guy is a tortured hero's tortured hero… tormented until the last.
One of Katharine's first scenes involves her telling a story around a campfire. Shadows flicker on the faces of everyone listening, but those aren't normal shadows… they're foreshadows. (Hey-o!)
The story involves a man seducing a queen, killing her husband, and becoming king. Perhaps Katharine intends the story to seduce Almásy, who listens with rapt attention, but this isn't how things turn out for these two at all.
It's easy to see why these two are attracted to each other—they're the two hottest people in Cairo, and we don't mean temperature-wise. Almásy actually resists Katharine early on, not liking the fact that she is a married woman. But she enters his room in a virginal white dress that he rips right off her, and their affair sizzles and steams immediately.
But the two have a super complicated relationship. Katharine, even though she is married, wants to transcend her boundaries. She loves her husband and she loves Almásy, but she loves them differently. Almásy, a mapmaker who seems to hate boundaries, doesn't like the concept of marriage, and how marriage means that a man owns a woman. However, at the same time, Almásy wants to claim Katharine for himself.
One evening after a steamy encounter, he says,
"I claim this shoulder blade. No, wait, I want. I want this, this place. I love this place, what's it called? This is mine. I'm going to ask the king permission to call it The Almásy Bosphorus."
"I thought you were against ownership."
He's against it in principle only. When Katharine breaks off the affair, Almásy goes crazy—literally—with loss.
Things unravel for Katharine after she breaks off the affair. War erupts, and her husband, Geoffrey, who works for England's Central Intelligence, won't leave Egypt. This means that Katharine is trapped in the same social circle as Almásy, who can't get over her.
The idea of ownership continues here. He says,
"I want to touch you. I want the things which are mine, which belong to me."
And while she may seem chilly on the surface, she tells him,
"Do you think you're the only one who feels anything? Is that what you think?"
He's selfish to think she doesn't have feelings too. She's conflicted: she loves Almásy, but she is guilty about cheating on her husband.
Katharine and Almásy are punished for their affair when Geoffrey crashes his plane, with Katharine in it, in the desert, trying to dive-bomb Almásy. Even though Almásy ends up burned alive later on, we think Katharine actually gets the raw deal here: starving to death, slowly, in a cold dark cave. Especially considering how much she loves water and hates the dry desert. She tells Almásy this, after the crash:
"You promise? I wouldn't want to die here. I don't want to die in the desert. I've always had rather an elaborate funeral in mind. Particular hymns. And I know exactly where I want to be buried. In our garden, where I grew up, with a view of the sea. Promise me you'll come back for me."
Not only does she die there, but her body is likely lost to the desert when Almásy does retrieve her, and his plane goes down. It's a tragic end to one of cinema's great love affairs.
Change one letter in "nurse" and you get "curse"… which is what young Hana thinks she has. Everyone around her dies—her sweetheart is "shot to bits," and her friend Jan blows up in front her.
"I must be a curse. Anybody who loves me, anybody who gets close to me… Or I must be cursed. Which is it?"
We imagine many people felt like Hana in World War II, when millions died and the idea of love lasting forever was impossibly optimistic.
Unlike her patient (who's burned to a crisp) Hana is young. She has the opportunity to heal, grow, and rebuild. We see her start this process as she moves into the monastery armed with only morphine and a pistol. The first thing she does is to cut her own hair: a fresh start at the end of a hard war. And she gives herself an incredible new 'do without a mirror—if the world doesn't need nurses after the war, she has a good career as a hair stylist ahead of her.
Hana wants alone time, but she doesn't get it. Before she knows it, her monastery is overrun, but it allows her to find love. When she becomes interested in Kip the minesweeper, she starts to find her reflection—once in a pool of water, once in the glass of a wind chime. She wants to look good for him. Finding love with Kip helps her to find herself.
It also allows Hana to see she isn't cursed. Not that their relationship works out… but at least Kip doesn't die. The movie does its best to trick you into thinking he will, during a tense bomb-defusing scene, but Kip survives. However, unable to cope with the death of his own friend, Kip leaves Hana. But this allows her to have a peaceful ending to a relationship once, and gives her the hope that she may one day see him again.
Hana, or Hannah, means "grace" in Hebrew. And Hana handles every situation with grace, giving everyone around her inspiration to do the same during a very difficult time.
Think of Kip Singh as the little smiley face at the top of the window in the classic Windows computer game Minesweeper. He's cool and collected (just look at the shades on that smiley) and frowns when a mine explodes.
Okay, that's simplifying his role. Kip is much more complex than an easy 8x8 mode of Minesweeper. He's an expert 30 x 24 field, so let's start sweeping.
Kip shows us that there's danger lurking everywhere, and that it takes expert, patient skill to diffuse that danger. Whether it's under a piano, in a statue, or in the middle of the road, there could be a bomb just waiting to go off. The English patient's memories might seem like little landmines of their own, but the ones Kip deals with are far dangerous and deadly.
It's a high stress job, so Kip finds comfort with Hana, the nurse. However, there is no future for them. Hana is afraid Kip will die because she is cursed, and because he has such a high-risk job, and Kip isn't going to give up his job until all the mines are gone.
Because of his dangerous job, he puts up an emotional barrier and a physical barrier between himself and Hana. In the movie, you often see them separated—like by a bedsheet when he is bathing. After his friend dies, Kip shuts himself in a barn with Hana on the other side of the wall. He won't let her in.
Kip and Hana have a sweet, romantic young love that is the opposite of the almost-violent possessive love between Almásy and Katharine. Kip and Hana's love is best represented by this conversation they have after a night of lovemaking:
HANA: If one night, I didn't come to see you, what would you do?
KIP: I'd try not to expect you.
HANA: Yes, but if it got late and, I hadn't shown up.
KIP: Then I'd think, there must be a reason.
HANA: You wouldn't come to find me? That makes me never want to come here. Then I tell myself, he spends all day searching. In the night he wants to be found.
KIP: I do. I do want you to find me. I do want to be found.
They dance around the issues of ownership that Almásy and Katharine are mired in. But even though Hana and Kip are younger, they seem to have a more mature love. Maybe because they have both experienced so much during the war, passion is hard to come by.
Speaking of ownership, another scene lets Kip explore this topic on a global scale. The patient likes to be read to, and Rudyard Kipling (that imperialist) is one of his favorite authors.
Kip says, "I can't read these words. I can't read them. They stick in my throat." Almásy asks, "What is it exactly you object to: the writer, or what he's writing about?" And Kip responds,
"What I really object to, uncle, [is] the message everywhere in your book, no matter how slowly I read it, that the best thing for India is to be ruled by the British."
Kip is fiercely independent, which is another reason he decides to leave Hana in the end, and go off on his own.
David "Moose" Caravaggio is the film's fifth wheel. We have #teamalmásyandkatharine and #teamkipandhana, but no #teamcaravaggioandhisthumbs.
The morphine-addicted thief is basically a walking symbol of the consequences of Almásy's actions. Caravaggio initially plans to kill Almásy, but decides not to. Why?
Maybe it's because he realizes that, even though Almásy sold out the British to the Germans, there wouldn't be two different sides if there weren't a war. Almásy, Caravaggio, and everyone else are just pawns in this great global scheme.
Caravaggio hints at this idea with a seemingly innocuous line of dialog in his first scene:
"In Italy you get chickens, but no eggs. In Africa, there are always eggs but never chickens. Who separated them?"
War is a chicken-or-egg situation. Does war happen because of bad people, or are bad people created because of war? Despite creeping around the monastery for most of the movie, we don't learn much else about Caravaggio. He drops his revenge scheme, so maybe he has found a little peace of his own after hanging around the English patient.
Geoffrey Clifton is a tricky fella. He seems like a "buffoon," but he's actually working for the British government. He disguises himself as Santa Claus at Christmas, and he wants to surprise his wife with an anniversary gift. Yet the greatest disguise of all is that he seems like a perfectly normal person… until he tries to kill his wife, himself, and his wife's lover in a plane crash. Surprise!
Geoffrey shows us how quickly a man driven by jealousy can go insane. Early on, Almásy seems to warn Geoffrey that he shouldn't leave Katharine alone with him:
"Do you think it's appropriate to leave her? […] The desert is… for a woman it's very tough. I wonder if it's not too much for her."
Geoffrey thinks Almásy is threatened by a woman, when it's really Geoffrey's marriage that is threatened. He seems likeable enough, and we feel sorry for him… at least until he tries to kill everyone.
Poor Sergeant Hardy is an example of bad things happening to good people even when the world is supposed to be at peace. He's a good person—he rescues Hana she wanders into the mined road for Jan's bracelet. Then he hangs around the monastery being charming and harmless, and helps keep Kip calm when he defuses a bomb.
Hardy goes to town to celebrate when the war is over, but even though the war is over there will still be casualties. Hardy climbs a statue to put up the Union Jack, and the statue, which is booby-trapped, explodes. Hardy's death pushes Kip into a depression, and he eventually leaves the monastery because of it.
Although Hardy is a good person, his putting the Union Jack on the statue is a problem in the world of The English Patient, which shows the dangers of ownership. Hardy tries to "claim" an Italian statue in the name of Britain, and it ends up being fatal.
We become briefly acquainted with other members of the Royal Geographical Society; a group of men mapping the desert while their wives are at home. Almásy and Geoffrey are already on the outskirts of the group here: Almásy being unmarried, and Geoffrey for bringing his wife along.
The member of the club we know most is Peter Madox, the only person Almásy can call a friend in the whole world. Almásy is devastated to learn that Madox shot himself after learning Almásy was a spy. Almásy wasn't a spy, but Madox didn't know that. He felt betrayed.
Another member of the club is Bermann, a man who seems to be having an affair with a young Egyptian boy, Kamal. This relationship seems to justify and foreshadow Almásy and Katharine's affair. Bermann says to Almásy,
"How do you explain to someone who has never been here, feelings which seem quite normal?"
The desert is a different world with different rules. But this is a movie that punishes adultery, and Bermann, who is paying more attention to Kamal than to where he's driving, drives off a sand dune. No one is killed, but the scene shows us that adulterers meet with tragedy.
Other members of the Sand Club include D'Agostino a.k.a. D'Aggers, and Fouad. Some are British, and some are Egyptian guides. They work together, and we don't know much about them, although Fouad really knows how to move on the dance floor.