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A man and a woman fly over Egypt in a plane. The plane is hit by gunfire and goes down.
The man's charred body is dragged from the wreckage by a tribe of people in the desert, and they do their best to heal him.
We don't see the woman.
Elsewhere, a woman named Hana is a nurse for the Allied forces during World War II. She learns that her boyfriend, a soldier, has been killed. Then, when her nurse friend Jan is killed when her jeep hits a landmine, Hana thinks she's cursed—everyone she loves dies.
Flash-forward to 1944 in the Italian countryside. The war is almost over, and Hana is part of a medical caravan tending to wounded soldiers. One of the wounded is the burned man, but no one knows his name or where he came from. It's painful for him to be moved in and out of the caravan, so Hana decides to take him to a nearby monastery to tend to him until he dies.
For a while, Hana and her English patient are by themselves. Hana repairs some stairs, plants a garden, and reads to the patient. But the two are soon joined by David Caravaggio (a thumbless thief who believes he knows the patient's identity) and Kip Singh (a Sikh minesweeper who catches Hana's eye).
Over time, the patient reveals his story:
His name is Count Laszlo de Almásy. He was a Hungarian mapmaker in Egypt before the war, but he had a fatal attraction to a married woman: Katharine Clifton.
Katharine accompanied Almásy to a geological discovery, the Cave of Swimmers. On their way back to Cairo, they were caught in a sandstorm and spent the night in the jeep talking about winds. (It's super romantic—take our word for it.) The next day, Katharine went to Almásy's hotel room, and they began their passionate affair. But Katharine felt guilty. She tried to break it off with Almásy, but he became angry and jealous and cruel to her. Yeah, he was more of a Count Dracula than a Prince Charming.
Back in the present, Hana starts her own affair with Kip, the minesweeper. One day, he's called to defuse a mine—it almost explodes, but he dismantles it at the last second. Maybe Hana's curse is broken…
...or maybe it's just on the fritz. Kip's sergeant is killed by a booby-trapped statue when celebrating Germany's surrender. Wracked with sorrow and guilt, Kip leaves the monastery, and Hana hopes she will see him again someday.
Meanwhile, in the patient's room, Caravaggio accuses Almásy of being a traitor, luring the Germans to Egypt. Because of this, a sadistic German general cut off his thumbs. Almásy doesn't deny it. He tells Caravaggio what really happened: when war broke out, the Royal Geographic Society had to leave Egypt. Translation: no more maps. Almásy made one last mission, and the plan was for him to be picked up by Katharine's husband, Geoffrey, in his plane.
Geoffrey had other plans.
Having discovered Katharine and Almásy's affair—even though it had been broken off by that point—Geoffrey tried to crash his plane into Almásy. But, uh, he missed and died in the crash. Katharine was in the plane and was severely injured. With Katharine unable to walk, Almásy stored her with food and water in the Cave of Swimmers. He set off for the nearest village for help.
When he got there, the town was under British occupation. The soldiers demanded identification, but Almásy had none (duh). Because of his name, they thought he was German, and they arrested him. Almásy escaped from the POW train and traded maps to the Germans in exchange for passage back to Cairo. He returned to the Cave of Swimmers, where Katharine had died. Almásy carried her from the cave and into his German plane…
...which takes us back to the beginning of the movie.
Almásy wants to die, so Hana gives him an overdose of morphine. One thing Almásy kept throughout the years is a history book that doubles as a scrapbook. Inside it, Katharine wrote her last words as she lay dying in the cave. Hana reads these last words to Almásy as he dies.
Caravaggio finds a truck to take Hana to the Italian city, where her medical caravan is waiting. She climbs in the back of the truck with a child and rides through the green Italian countryside, enjoying the wind and the sun and the sensation of being alive.
The (teary) end.