November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas

Adapting Michael Ondaatje’s celebrated 1992 novel, director Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply) has created a tragic romantic fable. As in any fable, the tale is a dreamlike adventure that travels down odd, dark paths to arrive at unexpected, otherwise unreachable emotional depths. Your compass won’t do you any good here.

Fiennes plays half the film in hideously disfiguring makeup. A cartographer whose plane was shot down over the African desert in 1942, he is burned beyond recognition. He looks like human driftwood. Now, recuperating in an Italian villa at the end of the war, he is cared for by a nurse (Juliette Binoche) who grieves for a lover killed in combat. Fiennes drifts off into flashback memories of his affair with Scott Thomas, the aristocratic wife of one of Fiennes’s colleagues, on a charting expedition in Egypt. The glimpses we have of their relationship, played out against sandstorms and minarets, are feverishly erotic, although they come close—oh, so close!—to tipping into bodice-ripping camp.

Then again, this is Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, two extraordinarily sensitive actors of extraordinarily refined presence. They must have claret in their veins. When the movie penetrates to the heart of their buried past, Patient becomes even stronger, stranger, grander—a threnody beneath a cloudless desert sky. (R)

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