The title of The English Patient is a bit of a joke. Count Laszlo de Almasy is a Hungarian who was working at the outbreak of WWII with the British Royal Geographic Society charting the North African desert before he was found burned beyond recognition, his plane having been shot down by the Germans, and taken to an Italian monastery to be cared for by a French-Canadian nurse. His real identity, though, has nothing to do with passports or patriotism. He is a man in love.

Director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) has made a lush, dazzling adaptation of Michael Ondaajte’s reputedly unfilmable novel. He cuts from 1937 to 1945, unhurriedly weaving together the events that will bring Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and others to Tuscany to wait out death or peace. Tones and moods shift as the time periods do—at first it’s unclear why we are watching the nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), interact with her medical unit near the end of the war, her distraction explained as a result of falling in love with men who tend to die. The English Patient is tough going at first, but soon enough the puzzle begins to piece itself together.

Next we peer in on a different close-knit community, the cartographers gathered in the Sahara eight years earlier, shaken up by the arrival of bluff aristocrat Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Then it’s back to Tuscany, where Hana disembarks from her unit’s convoy to nurse her burned patient into his death. It is Almasy, so starchily resentful of Katharine’s presence among the male map-making crew and later literally scorched as a result of his love for that same woman, who provides the link.

The English Patient uses its monastic idyll—monastic for the moribund count and, for a while, for the disappointed nurse—as the framework for this complicated set of stories. Pages from Herodotus, the prompting of visitors, or a chance phrase of Hana’s make Almasy’s still-fertile mind start unspooling the previous eight years.

Although the count allows himself to be diagnosed as an amnesiac, his life is literally an open book. A fat little volume of Herodotus, stuffed with notes, drawings, and diary entries, tells the tale its owner will not, and Minghella lets his own telling unfold as if dropping leaves from this book. He toys with physical perspective as well—behind the credits an enigmatic drawing slowly takes shape, the significance of which won’t be clear for another hour. The opening shot is a long overhead pan of the voluptuous desert dunes, all amber curves like a giant, recumbent nude.

Almasy is a prickly sort when we first meet him, knobby-kneed and slightly aloof from his compatriots in the desert. In spite of his angular grace, Fiennes always plays the sort of sourpuss who would not be entirely amused by a campfire rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and that is the case here, as Geoffrey cavorts around the flames while Almasy adopts a resigned, overeducated smirk. He is busy not having noble thoughts, as it appears, but undergoing profound sexual distraction. Katharine’s arrival has smitten him utterly; besottedness is the only emotion this cold fish is unable to control. When he falls, he plummets, never to resurface.

As for Katharine, it’s easy to see how she can love both the devoted Geoffrey, with his good heart and good cheer, and fall for the awkward, charming count for whom love is all-encompassing. His oddness intrigues her. During a terrifying sandstorm, he locks the two of them safely into a Jeep and then regales her with stories of historic storms and the damage they did—that’s his idea of seduction.

Love also brings out a tart, self-mocking sense of humor in Almasy. Although he and Katharine have hardly spoken, he finds himself haunting her every step as she tries to spend a solitary day at the bazaar. His face remains grave and immobile, but his eyes plead pitifully as he tries to catch and keep her attention: “Have you seen the pyramids?” Tired of the game, Katharine excuses herself. “Or the Sphinx?” he asks himself.

The affair they end up having scorches the earth, or at least the circle of earth that surrounds the lovers. It literally drives Almasy mad, leading him to get drunk and ribald and vicious at a formal dinner, to corner Katharine after she ends it and babble about ownership and her beautiful, distant throat. Finally it leads him to turn over maps to the Germans as casually as if offering someone a light. There are suicides and murders. Unbeknownst to Almasy, he’s responsible for the mutilation of a creepy Canadian thief plying his petty trade for the Allies.

The thief, called or calling himself David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), shows up at the monastery years later with mysteriously wrapped hands and a keen interest in the identity of the man in bed. Caravaggio admits he has come to kill Almasy if he can find him, but while the dying count won’t admit his identity, he doesn’t seem worried. He tells the bandaged man the story of a general who wore a patch over one perfectly good eye. “The men fought harder for him,” he says. “What’s under your mittens?” What’s under the mittens is part of the truth, and Almasy’s guiltless curiosity is another part, but he doesn’t believe that his betrayals and the horrors they spawned are relevant—they were for Katharine, all for Katharine.

Unfortunately, the flashbacks are less interesting than the Tuscan scenes. The love affair is difficult but uncomplicated; its torridness conveys heat but not much depth. But in blue Tuscany, far from desert yellows, there’s a melodious stillness to the monastery inhabitants’ between-worlds existence. Hana volunteered to care for the English patient, but she also needed to go someplace where she was not in danger of the peculiar brand of wartime pain to which she seemed prone. Alone in a ruin with a dying, hideously scarred stranger, she is unlikely to fall in love with another doomed man. Her first act is to declare herself autonomous—she sits in a sunlit window and chops off her hair.

The gentle purgatory these three souls inhabit makes for strangely tolerant companionability. “I’ve come to love the little tap of the fingernail on the syringe—tap, tap,” sighs Almasy as Caravaggio shoots himself up with the count’s morphine and Hana plays some sprightly Bach on a half-ruined piano in the next room.

It is this sound that summons her destiny. A seer told Hana that she would call her lover with music, and indeed Sikh demolitions expert Kip (Naveen Andrews) rushes to her side to point out the deadly surprise taped to the instrument’s underside. Hana and Kip fall in love and then part dreamily, without remorse, she listening for the sound of his beloved jazz records behind the great doors of an abandoned church; he patient and still when she catches him turbanless, his sacred hair streaming.

Their love affair, unlike the one between Almasy and Katharine, is the product of wartime expediency, but no less genuine for it. For once Hana beats chance, holding onto a lover (despite his dangerous job) safely until the war’s end, but they still must pay. Kip’s two languages desert him when he loses his terribly British, too terribly loyal Sgt. Hardy, smithereened by an overlooked booby trap. “He never asked me if I could turn a bat at cricket,” he stammers, “or about Kamasutra…”

As John Boorman explored the delights of wartime England for a young lad in Hope & Glory, Minghella depicts the unexpected physical beauties of war—picturesquely bombed-out landscapes, an eye-filling sandstorm, a rain of silk parachutes. He doesn’t flinch from the horrors: the many plane crashes, a dismemberment by straight razor, the sight of half an exploded statue, its marble robes streaked with blood. And that storm, lashing at the lovers in the fragile safety of the Jeep. It’s the war and the waiting world; they’re only safe as long as they’re together.