As I write this, the details are sketchy, but it’s been confirmed that Oscar-winning film director Anthony Minghella has died at the age of 54. At the turn of the millennium, Minghella was the go-to man for star-studded, moderately budgeted, profit-making, literary minded prestige films.
In 1996, he achieved his greatest success with his film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The film will always hold a special place in my memory. As a junior in high school, it was the first film I saw at the Ritz Theater in Voorhees, NJ, which at the time had just opened as the premier art-house venue in the Philadelphia suburbs. Combining the epic styling of David Lean with the gritty sensuality of Bernardo Bertolucci, The English Patient left an indelible mark and won 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for Minghella. 1996 was considered the year of the independent film with the neo-classic Coen Brothers’ film Fargo and Mike Leigh’s insightful Secrets & Lies among those films competing with Minghella’s period piece. The English Patient was the crowning jewel of that independent Hollywood mindset that was rallying against big budgets and small minds. It represented the pinnacle of Miramax Studio’s prowess as the premier prestige film distributor, and it launched Minghella onto the A-list. The film so infected the pop culture upon its release, that it was ironically immortalized as the film Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld will always hate. She would’ve rather seen Sack Lunch!
In 1999, Minghella delivered his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which featured some of the hottest young actors and actresses of the moment (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and then relatively unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman). The studio marketed the film as a classy, picturesque, throwback to the heyday of Hitchcock’s stylized VistaVision thrillers. Knowing nothing of the literary source material and fooled by the clever marketing and rave reviews, I went to see the film with my mother at Christmastime while home from college. About thirty minutes into the picture when we realized this was no lightweight Hitchcock homage, but instead a psychosexual thriller about a homosexual serial killer, it made for the most uncomfortable movie-going experience of my life. Again, defying our expectations, and making his audience squirm, Minghella left his mark.
In 2003, Minghella tackled Charles Frazier’s ridiculously successful novel, Cold Mountain. While the vapid romance at the film’s core and the often vulgar episodic odyssey of Jude Law’s character left many wishing for more restraint, the film is still memorable for some of the most well staged Civil War battle scenes ever captured on film and Renee Zelwegger’s Oscar-winning supporting turn as a fast-talking migrant farm-hand from Texas who befriends Nicole Kidman’s character.
Minghella will always be remembered for this trilogy of high profile literary film adaptations, but he also excelled with smaller films. His 1990 feature debut, Truly Madly Deeply, featuring Alan Rickman as a dead musician who sticks around to comfort his grieving girlfriend, has developed a rather rabid cult following over the years. His most recent film, 2006’s Breaking and Entering, in which he reunited with muse Juliette Binoche (whom he directed to an Oscar win in The English Patient) and Jude Law, barely registered as a blip at the box office last winter, but you can be sure it will be added to my Netflix queue now.
Many have dismissed Minghella’s style as overwrought and his successes overrated. I’ll always remember him as one of the directors who most influenced my movie-going habits during my formative years as a film buff. Minghella was a director of refined tastes and impeccable staging. He was quite adept at making heavy-handed techniques seem naturalistic on screen and was never afraid to challenge an audience. His style of direction has fallen out of favor recently in Hollywood. Just look at how hard the recent Atonement (a film that owes a world of debt to The English Patient and even featured a winking cameo of Minghella) had to work to eek out its respectable $50 million dollar domestic gross and gain that coveted Best Picture nomination. It will be directors like Atonement’s Joe Wright who will carry on Minghella’s legacy. Minghella in 2008 seemed poised for his next evolution as a director and was talented enough to stage a comeback. At age 54, he is gone too soon, and will be greatly missed.
Written by David H. Schleicher