Excerpts from “The Byronic Man,” Vogue (September 1996), by Rhoda Koenig

The view from the movie set is a watercolorist's paradise—a horizon of taupe, then blue, then violet, peach, and blue again on the beach where Dirk Bogarde expired of romantic longing and cholera. The set itself is the monumental Hotel des Bains, on the Lido, where Death in Venice was written by Thomas Mann and filmed by Luchino Visconti, and where today a group of puzzled residents are staring at a technician on a high ladder arranging the gold letters H-E-A-R-D. For a scene in Cairo just before World War II, the hotel is standing in for Shepheard's (now moved and "improved") in the film version of The English Patient.

Workers arrange yards of hedge and clusters of palms to hide the Italian pines; one man touches up a decorative sphinx, and another dirties and ages the Thomas Cook advertisement for Nile cruises he has just painted on a wall. Then the filmmakers arrive. The director and screenwriter, Anthony Minghella, who made Truly, Madly, Deeply, checks in, as does Kristin Scott Thomas. (The film's other leading actress, Juliette Binoche, does not appear in this sequence.) ...

The English Patient, adapted from Michael Ondaatje's 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel, is not a simple love story. Set at the beginning and end of World war II, it is also concerned with spying and exploration and the traumas of war. But at its core is a love affair between Thomas, playing wife of an explorer (Colin Firth), and Fiennes, as the Hungarian Count Almasy...

Eight o'clock in the morning is a little early for evening dress, but not if you're filming a complicated ballroom scene. Italian men in wing collars and black tie practice waltzing with each other to a recording of Rodgers and Hart while I resist the impulse to ask, "Come here often?" Then their real partners whose costumes take a bit more time, make their way onto the floor. Nearly all are stunning black-haired women in frocks the color of petits fourspeach lace, coffee chiffonwith some plump and elderly dancers mixed in for verisimilitude. A nice looking middle-aged woman who had come to Venice to visit her daughter passes me, unrecognizable in rolled hair and full evening rig: "I told them I could fox-trot, so they said I could be in the movie!"...

As a soignée marcel-waved extra in gunmetal satin takes a long drag from her cigarette holder and a crew member manipulates a Maxismoke Turbo to create even more of a prewar atmosphere, Colin Firth strolls onto the set. He has spent the previous evening sitting in a car outside the hotel and swigging champagne moodily from the bottle to convey his distress on discovering his wife's adultery ("OK," the director instructs him through the window, "so his world is gone now, he's shattered. His life is over") and relishes a day of watching the other actors work. "So exhausting," he says with a stretch and a grin, "to stand around doing nothing all day." We repair to the bar to have coffee and talk about "this thing we call sex," with which Firth has become very much identified since the BBC broadcast Pride and Prejudice, in which he played Mr. Darcy. Since he was away making another film while the miniseries was shown in England, he wasn't able to fully register the extent of the hysteria. Women have been naming their babies Darcy, buying Mr. Darcy-ish garments for their boyfriends. The BBC itself auctioned one of the film's famous frilly shirts for charity, inviting women to take "a last look at the shirt they longed to undo."

"I can't understand it," says Firth. "I've never tried harder not to be sexy in my life."

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