The film opens with an introduction to Hana, a young nurse. She lives in an abandoned villa, the Villa San Girolamo, that is filled with hidden, undetonated bombs. In her care is the English Patient. All that she knows about the patient is that he was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash before being taken to the hospital by a Bedouin tribe and that he claims to be English.
The only possession that the Patient came with was a copy of Herodotus histories that he carried through the fire. He has annotated these histories and, in a sense, become a part of them. He is constantly remembering his explorations in the desert in great detail, but cannot state his own name. The Patient is, in fact, L¡szl³ de Alm¡sy, a Hungarian desert explorer. He, however, chose to erase his identity and nationality. It is unknown whether this was for protection or as a metaphorical statement.
Prompted to tell his story, the Patient begins to reveal all. He had an affair with Geoffrey Cliftons wife, Katharine. They both accompanied the patients desert exploration team. The Patients job was to draw maps of the desert and The Cliftons plane made this job much easier. One of their earlier discoveries was the cave of swimmers.
Alm¡sy fell in love with Katherine Clifton one night as she read from Herodotus histories aloud around a campfire. They soon began a very intense affair, but in 1938, Katharine cut it off, claiming that Geoffrey would go mad if he discovered them. Geoffrey, however, does find out of the affair when he tricks her into thinking hes out of town for the day (wanting to surprise her for their first wedding anniversary) and sees Katherine getting into a car.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the members of the exploration team decided to pack up base camp and Geoffrey Clifton offered to pick up Alm¡sy in his plane. However, Geoffrey Clifton arrived with Katharine and tried to kill all three of them by crashing the plane, leaving Alm¡sy in the desert to die. Geoffrey Clifton was immediately killed. Katharine was also horribly injured. Alm¡sy took her to the cave of swimmers and covered her with a parachute so he could leave to find help. After four days, he reached a town, but the British were suspicious of him because he had a foreign sounding last name. They locked him up as a spy.
When Alm¡sy finally gets away, he knew it was too late to save Katharine so he joined the Germans, helping their spies cross the desert into Cairo in exchange for gas and a car to get back to Katherine. After leaving Cairo, his car broke down in the desert. He went to the cave of swimmers to find Katharine. He retrieved her body and took it to the crashed plane which had been buried under the sand. He tried to fly back to civilization, but the plane malfunctioned during flight. Alm¡sy parachuted down covered in flames which was where the Bedouins found him.
Caravaggio, who had had suspicions that the Patient was not English, fills in details. Geoffrey Clifton was, in fact, an English spy and had intelligence about Alm¡sys affair with Katharine. He also had intelligence that Alm¡sy was already working with the Germans but whether he was or not is unclear.
The film also focuses on Kip. Kips brother had always distrusted the West, but Kip entered the British Army willingly. He was trained as a sapper by Lord Suffolk, an English gentleman, who welcomed Kip into his family. Under Lord Suffolks training, Kip became very skilled at his job. When Lord Suffolk and his team get blown up by a bomb, Kip becomes separated from the world and emotionally removed from everyone. He decides to leave England and begin defusing bombs in Italy.
Kip forms a romantic relationship with Hana and uses it to reconnect to humanity. He becomes a part of a community again and begins to feel comfortable as a lover. Then he hears news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. He becomes enraged. He feels deceived and betrayed by this western world that he has tried to assimilate to. He threatens to kill the English Patient, but instead just leaves the Villa.
For some time after their separation Hana wrote Kip letters, but he never responded. She eventually stopped. Years later Kip is happily married with children and is a successful doctor; however, he still often thinks of Hana.
The film is set during World War II and depicts a critically burned man, at first known only as the English patient, who is being looked after by Hana, a French-Canadian nurse in a ruined Italian monastery. The patient is suffering from amnesia, but through a series of flashbacks he is gradually able to rediscover his past. It is slowly revealed that he is in fact a Hungarian geographer, Count L¡szl³ de Alm¡sy, who was making a map of the Sahara Desert, and whose affair with a married woman ultimately brought about his present situation. As the patient remembers more, David Caravaggio, a Canadian thief, arrives at the monastery. Caravaggio lost his thumbs while being interrogated by officers of the German Africa Corps, and he gradually reveals that it was the patients actions that had brought about his torture.
In addition to the patients story, the film devotes time to Hana and her romance with Kip, an Indian sapper in the British Army. Due to various events in her past, Hana believes that anyone who comes close to her is likely to die, and Kips position as a bomb defuser makes their romance full of tension.
Narrator Function: The narrator is omniscient, and conveys the points of view of several different characters. The narrator is capable of knowing, seeing, and telling whatever he or she wishes. It is characterized by freedom in shifting from the exterior world to the inner selves of a number of characters and a freedom and movement in both time and place but to and event greater extent characterize it by the freedom of the narrator to comment on the meaning of actions.