The film was released to critical acclaim, and received 12 nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, eventually winning nine, including Best Picture, Best Director for Minghella, and Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche.
In the final days of the Italian Campaign of World War II, Hana, a French-Canadian nurse working and living in a bombed-out Italian monastery, looks after a critically burned man who speaks English but cannot remember his name. They are joined by Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army who defuses bombs and has a love affair with Hana before leaving for Florence, and David Caravaggio, a Canadian Intelligence Corps operative who was questioned by Germans and has had his thumbs cut off during a German interrogation. Caravaggio questions the patient, who gradually reveals his past.
The patient tells Hana and Caravaggio that, in the late 1930s, he was exploring the desert of Libya. He is revealed to be Hungarian cartographer Count László de Almásy, who was mapping the Sahara as part of a Royal Geographical Society archeological and surveying expedition in Egypt and Libya with Englishman Peter Madox and others. Their expedition is joined by a British couple, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. Almásy falls in love with Katharine and writes about her in his book which Katharine reads. The two thereafter begin an affair which eventually Katharine ends. Almásy declares that he has found the Cave of Swimmers. An archaeological survey is conducted on it and the surrounding area until they are stopped due to the onset of the war. Madox leaves his Tiger Moth plane at Kufra oasis before his intended return to England.
While Almásy is packing up their base camp, Geoffrey, in attempted murder-suicide, deliberately crashes the plane, narrowly missing Almásy. Geoffrey is killed instantly, Katharine is seriously injured. Almásy carries her to the Cave of Swimmers, leaving her with provisions, and begins a three-day walk to get help. At British-held El Tag he attempts to explain the situation, but is detained as a possible German spy and transported on a train. He escapes from the train and trades the Geographical Society maps to the Germans for gasoline. He finds Madox's Tiger Moth and flies back to the cave, but Katharine has died. As he flies himself and Katharine's body away, they are shot down by German anti-aircraft guns. Almásy is badly burned and is rescued by the Bedouin.
After he has related the story, Almásy indicates to Hana for a lethal dose of morphine; she complies and reads Katharine's final journal entries to him as he dies. She and Caravaggio leave the monastery for Florence.
Saul Zaentz was interested in working with Anthony Minghella after he saw the director's film Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990); Minghella brought this project to the producer's attention. Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author of the novel, worked closely with the filmmakers. During the development of the project with 20th Century Fox, according to Minghella, the "studio wanted the insurance policy of so-called bigger" actors. Zaentz recalled, "they'd look at you and say, 'Could we cast Demi Moore in the role'?" Not until Miramax Films took over was the director's preference for Scott Thomas accepted.
The film was shot on location in Tunisia and Italy. with a production budget of $31 million.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002) by Michael Ondaatje is based on the conversations between the author and film editor. Murch, with a career that already included complex works like the Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, dreaded the task of editing the film with multiple flashbacks and time frames. Once he began, the possibilities became apparent, some of which took him away from the order of the original script. A reel without sound was made so scene change visuals would be consistent with the quality of the aural aspect between the two. The final cut features over 40 temporal transitions. It was during this time that Murch met Ondaatje and they were able to exchange thoughts about editing the film.
Two types of aircraft are used in the film, a De Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth and a Boeing-Stearman Model 75. Both are biplanes. The camp crash scene was made with a 1⁄2-size scale model.
The Hungarian folk song, "Szerelem, Szerelem", performed by Muzsikas featuring Márta Sebestyén, featured in the film.
The film received widespread critical acclaim, was a box office success and a major award winner: victorious in 9 out of 12 nominated Academy Awards categories; 2 out of 7 nominated Golden Globe Awards categories; and 6 out of 13 nominated BAFTA Award categories.
The film has a "Certified Fresh" rating of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 75 reviews with an average rating of 7.6 out of 10, with the consensus concluding, "Though it suffers from excessive length and ambition, director Minghella's adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel is complex, powerful, and moving." The film also has a rating of 87% on Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim". Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert gave the film a 4/4 rating, saying "it's the kind of movie you can see twice – first for the questions, the second time for the answers". In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin rated the film 3 1⁄2 out of 4, calling it "a mesmerizing adaptation" of Ondaatje's novel, saying "Fiennes and Scott Thomas are perfectly matched", and he concluded by calling the film "an exceptional achievement all around".