Anthony Minghella 1954 – 2008
"I want to get better. I am absolutely determined that I'll keep trying to learn and not know too much and just see what happens."
So promised the writer-director Anthony Minghella the last time I saw him, in the autumn of 2006, with a combination of resolve and humility which was typical of the man. It's a great shame we have been robbed of his talent at an age (54) when so much more could have been expected.
Erudite, loquacious, gracious and accomplished, Minghella was always a pleasure to talk with - or, more simply, to listen to. An academic in another life (he studied literature and then taught drama for five years at the University of Hull), he was curious about everything, extremely well read and serious in the best way. He knew that ideas matter; that art grants depth and dimension to our experience.
A chat about Cold Mountain could start with a note about the Canadian poet Anne Carson, then take in Bruce Chatwin's "The Songlines", medieval theology, Minghella's Catholic upbringing, the war in Iraq, Greek theatre, and much more besides, but at the same time he was insistent that he was allergic to museums, the idea that culture was "good for you, like spinach".
"The only reason to adapt a book set in the past is because it reverberates with the world we are in," he said.
Minghella made three such adaptations on the trot. It took years to get The English Patient made, but when it came out in 1996 the passionate WWII romance won nine Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and transformed his career. The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain followed in 1999 and 2003. All three were lavish productions, beautifully crafted (Minghella built up a fine team of collaborators including DP John Seale, editor Walter Murch and costume designer Ann Roth), earned Oscar attention, and were strongly supported by Miramax.
I suspect Minghella felt that he'd been swept up by his success in ways he enjoyed and exploited, but which also took him away from himself. He became a senior statesman in the British film industry almost overnight (becoming chairman of the BFI in 2001, a mere ten years after his debut feature, the bittersweet BBC comedy Truly Madly Deeply). He considered himself a writer first, though in the business he was recognised more as a director-producer. (His production credits include Heaven, Catch a Fire and the forthcoming Stephen Daldry picture, The Reader).
A couple of years ago he made a pointed attempt to get back to basics, writing his first original screenplay in 15 years. After a decade that took him to Tuscany and North Africa; to Sicily, Naples, Rome, Venice and the Carpathians (standing in for the Appalachians) Breaking and Entering was also a return to Britain, to "two pages of the A-Z" as he put it, and an attempt at a more intimate scale. Even here, though, in the heart of London, he found himself exploring the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the way different worlds interconnect in our cosmopolitan cities. It was no surprise when he decided his next project would take him to Botswana, for the The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency (a BBC film scheduled for broadcast this weekend).
National identity was an important theme for this Englishman born to Italian immigrants and brought up on the Isle of Wight. As anyone who has seen his finest film, The English Patient, will know, it is a definition he mistrusted, even abhorred. Minghella himself transcended such insularities and reached out to audiences everywhere without compromising his vision.
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