Thursday, March 20, 2008

Minghella remembered

The early death of director Anthony Minghella has brought to a sharp end a career which had so much more to give. He was not prolific, releasing a film every three years, but he was ambitious and sensitive in his work, drawing outstanding performances from his cast.

His debut was the ghost-romance Truly Madly Deeply (1990), which managed to steer the right side of mawkishness, unlike Ghost, and produce deep tenderness from Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman.

The great triumph of his career came with the English Patient (1996), a project of epic sweep which took in the North African campaign of World War II but did not lose sight of the romance at its heart, between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas. The grandeur and the intimacy clearly appealed to the Oscars, since he left with nine, including Best Director.

It is this combination of the personal amid the global which was a hallmark of his work. Cold Mountain (2003) set the relationship of Jude Law and Nicole Kidman against the American Civil War, and despite the emotional honesty of the acting and the evocation of the war, it was a critical and commercial failure.

Minghella’s latest – and now last – project is based on the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, starring soul singer Jill Scott and due to be shown on BBC1 this Easter. It is a new departure for the director, both in geography and in tone – the gentle comedy of a Botswanaian mystery is far from Breaking and Entering’s cold Kings Cross – but in his skilled hands, it will certainly be an accomplished tale.

It is the English Patient which means most to me of his films: I saw it as a teenager when it first came out and it inspired me not just with the harsh poetry of the contemporary scenes – a Tuscan villa, a north African square under the Nazis, the sweeping sands of the desert – but with the way film can embrace the personal and the political in the same frame. His death deprives the film world of a wise and humane craftsman.

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