The English Patient (1996) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • October 1944 in war torn Italy. Hana, a French-Canadian nurse working in a mobile army medical unit, feels like everything she loves in life dies on her. Because of the difficulty traveling and the dangers, especially as the landscape is still heavily booby-trapped with mines, Hana volunteers to stay behind at a church to care solely for a dying semi-amnesiac patient, who is badly burned and disfigured. She agrees to catch up to the rest of the unit after he dies. All the patient remembers is that he is English and that he is married. Their solitude is disrupted with the arrival at the church of fellow Canadian David Caravaggio, part of the Intelligence Service, who is certain that he knows the patient as a man who cooperated with the Germans. Caravaggio believes that the patient's memory is largely in tact and that he is running away from his past, in part or in its entirety. The patient does open up about his past, all surrounding his work as a cartographer in North Africa, which was interrupted by the war. He may not be running from his work as a spy for the Germans as Caravaggio believes, but rather the memory of an affair he had with married Katherine Clifton, the love of his life, and the memory of a promise not totally fulfilled. Hana may also test her theory of her fates with love and death as she embarks on a relationship of her own with Kip Singh, a Sikh from India, whose unit has camped on the now overgrown lawn of the church. Their work entails sweeping for and diffusing mines, the discovery of one such mine which had earlier saved her life.

  • The sweeping expanses of the Sahara are the setting for a passionate love affair in this adaptation of Michael Ondaatjes novel. A badly burned man, Laszlo de Almasy, is tended to by a nurse, Hana, in an Italian monastery near the end of World War II. His past is revealed through flashbacks involving a married Englishwoman and his work mapping the African landscape. Hana learns to heal her own scars as she helps the dying man.

  • Beginning in the 1930's, "The English Patient" tells the story of Count Almásy who is a Hungarian map maker employed by the Royal Geographical Society to chart the vast expanses of the Sahara Desert along with several other prominent explorers. As World War II unfolds, Almásy enters into a world of love, betrayal, and politics that is later revealed in a series of flashbacks while Almásy is on his death bed after being horribly burned in a plane crash.

  • A burn victim, a nurse, a thief, and a sapper find themselves in each others company in an old Italian villa close to the end of World War II. Through flashbacks, we see the life of the burn victim, whose passionate love of a woman and choices he made for her ultimately change the lives of one other person in the villa. Not only is this film a search for the identity of the English patient, but a search for the identities of all the people in the quiet old villa.

  • In a crumbling villa in WWII Italy, during the final days of the European campaign, a young, shell-shocked war nurse (Hana) remains behind to tend her doomed patient - a horribly burned pilot. Through the gradual unraveling of his life and the appearance of an old family friend (Caravaggio) and a young Sikh sapper (Kip), the question of identity is explored.

  • 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 synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Set before and during World War II, The English Patient is a story of love, fate, misunderstanding and healing. Told in a series of flashbacks, the film can best be explained by unwinding it into its two chronological phases.

    In the first phase, set in the late 1930s, the minor Hungarian noble Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is co-leader of a Royal Geographical Society archeological and surveying expedition in Egypt and Libya. He and his English partner Madox (Julian Wadham) are at heart academics with limited sophistication in the swirling politics of Europe and North Africa. Shortly after the film begins, both the morale and finances of their expedition are bolstered by a British couple, Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas) that joins the exploration party. The Count is taken with the gorgeous and refined Katherine. When Geoffrey is often away from the group on other matters, an affair takes wing.

    The final months before the war's onset bring an archaeological triumph: the Count's discovery of an ancient Saharan cave decorated with swimming figure paintings dating from prehistoric times. This period also sees the romance between Katherine and the Count rise to a sensuous peak and then seemingly fade. Katherine is plagued with the guilt of infidelity, while the Count shows a streak of jealousy along with an imbalance that will later haunt him.

    The fall of 1939 and the war bring all excavation at the cave to a halt, and Madox and the Count go their separate ways. Geoffrey Clifton meanwhile has pieced together the outline of the affair, and seeks a sudden and dramatic revenge: crashing his plane, with Katherine aboard, into the Count's desert camp. The wreck kills Geoffrey instantly, seriously injures Katherine, and narrowly misses the Count. He manages to take Katherine into the relative shelter of the swimming figure cave, leaves her with water, a flashlight, and a fire, then begins his scorching three day walk back to Cairo and help. The mood in British-controlled Egypt has shifted since the films start and the dazed and dehydrated Count, with his non-English name, is unable to coherently explain to officials the plane crash and Katherine's plight. Instead he loses his temper during questioning and is thrown into military jail. By the time he is able to escape and return to the cave (with German help), his Katherine is dead. And in all but a physical sense, so is the Count.

    The films second phase shifts to Italy and the last months of the war. The Count by now is an invalid, having been horribly burned in a plane crash of his own not long after Katherine's death. The Count is wholly dependent by this time on morphine and the care of his French-Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), detached from her medical unit and established in a battered but beautiful Italian villa.

    The villa becomes focal point for more plot threads, some new and some unfinished from the North African phase, all themed around love, fate, and the backdrop of the war. Hana has seen a fiancé and a nursing friend die in the Italian campaign, and is left to wonder if her involvement with a British-Indian lieutenant will break her cycle of love and grief or simply continue it. A visitor to the villa named David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) at first believes he has simply found another source of morphine for his habit, but then realizes the disfigured Count played a role in his own ill-starred time in Egypt and Libya. For Caravaggio unwittingly stumbled into the wreckage of the Count-Katherine-Geoffrey love triangle, circa 1940-42. He's lost both thumbs in a grisly interrogation at the hands of the Nazis, and has since hunted down and killed those he believes responsible for his fate. He believes the Count was part of a web of spying and intrigue, confronts him with news of Madox's suicide, and posits that the Count killed the Cliftons. Only a full recounting at the villa of the Cliftons' crash and the Count's map dealings with the Germans to recover Katherine bring Caravaggio to understanding and forgiveness. So too does Hana find reconciliation at the film's end. Her lieutenant survives a brush with death on the war's last day and her hope in love is restored. Alas, time has run out on the Count; he succumbs to his burns and drifts off into dreams of his Katherine.

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