English filmmaker Anthony Minghella had a sparse but critically acclaimed filmography by the time of his passing today at the age of 54. Rooted in the stage and in television (where, among other projects, he’d written for the Emmy-winning Jim Henson’s Storyteller series), Minghella had crossed fully into making movies by the 1990s; although he won praise for his debut, the ethereal Truly Madly Deeply, it was his 1996 epic romance The English Patient that brought him wider notice.
That film was awarded nine Oscars, including Best Director for Minghella, and laid the foundation for his subsequent career — films he adapted from novels or wrote himself that often explored themes of yearning and human interaction. In recent years, Minghella also produced films like The Interpreter, Catch a Fire, and Michael Clayton, and appeared in an off-camera cameo as Vanessa Redgrave’s interviewer in Atonement. He had returned once again to television with his last completed project, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which he wrote and directed himself to be broadcast on BBC One this week.
With an impressive 71 percent overall Tomatometer, Minghella enjoyed a career freshness that few working filmmakers today achieve. We now turn to the six films Minghella directed, revisiting each title’s place in his memorable 18 years of making pictures.
Truly Madly Deeply (1990) 72 percent
The earliest of Minghella’s distributed films, Truly, Madly, Deeply features a perfectly cast Alan Rickman at the height of his Britishness. After the death of her husband Jamie (Rickman), Nina (Juliet Stevenson) is visited by his spirit. The couple’s chemistry and rapport is bitingly affectionate, and a bittersweet tang echoes throughout the film’s larger complications. After all, why should Jamie visit Nina but to help her let him go? In favor of a more low key stature, Minghella’s now trademark roving camera is not as evident in Truly. Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “beguiling” and who can blame him? At 72 percent on the Tomatometer, Truly, Madly, Deeply lingers in the mind like any great relationship should.
Mr. Wonderful (1993) 59 percent
Seemingly out of place among the epic literary adaptations and character studies in Minghella’s filmography, Mr. Wonderful follows a divorced electric worker (Matt Dillon) scheming to get out of paying alimony by marrying off his ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra). It’s romantic comedy as lightweight and sentimental as the genre tends to be, and critics were none too awed by the result; “This is a film for the moviegoing-impaired,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1993 review. Unsurprisingly, it was also the only film Minghella directed that he did not write himself. Only a few years later, he would take the lesson to heart…
The English Patient (1996) 84 percent
Dreamy, sweeping, and poetic, The English Patient was Anthony Minghella’s most decorated (he won an Oscar for Best Director) and commercially successful film. Ralph Fiennes plays a severely burned man with a shadowy past. As he is cared for in an Italian villa in the waning days of World War II by a nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche, who won an Oscar for her performance), he gradually reels off his tale. He’s not English at all; he’s a Hungarian Count and cartographer who, while making a map of the Sahara Desert, fell desperately in love with a married woman (Kristen Scott Thomas) and ended up betraying others in an attempt to secure her love. The English Patient was richly rewarded by the Academy, but this grand, achingly romantic, beautifully photographed film has an intensity of feeling worlds deeper and more mysterious than your typical Oscar bait. “This is a movie to lose yourself in,” wrote Desson Thomson of The Washington Post.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) 81 percent
As the titular character, Matt Damon plays one of the most sympathetic faces of evil in the movies, and The Talented Mr. Ripley is Mirimax sheen and Hitchcockian plotting at their finest. Ripley is a poor kid who eagerly accepts a moneyed man’s offer to travel to Italy and convince his jet-setting, jazz-crazed son Dickie (Jude Law) to return home. Upon meeting Dickie and his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), he becomes enraptured with their lifestyle, and cons his way into their lives. But as Dickie becomes less enamored of Ripley’s fawning, Ripley begins an elaborate con to assume his identity. Ripley is loaded with great performers (Damon, Law, Paltrow, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Cate Blanchett are all pitch-perfect), and its breathtaking cinematography, smoky bebop ambience, and compelling amorality make it a suspense yarn for the ages. “Anthony Minghella’s terrific The Talented Mr. Ripley offers us the guilty seasonal pleasure of wallowing in evil in its most luxuriant form,” wrote Joe Baltake of The Sacramento Bee.
Cold Mountain (2003) 72 percent
Charles Frazier’s epic Civil War novel was perfectly ripe for adaption by Minghella because of his flair for sweeping drama and tragic romance. The tale of a Confederate soldier (Jude Law) trudging across country to return to the love of his life (Nicole Kidman) is Homerian to the core, juxtaposing the terrors of battle with the desperation of civilian life as an entire society — as well as a burgeoning romance — is thrown into flux by the onset of war. Minghella the director had a knack for nurturing great performances from his actors (helping star Law to both of his Oscar nominations, for this and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and here guided Renee Zellweger to her first Academy Award for her supporting role as a firebrand farmwoman Ruby Thewes. Though a tad overlong at 2 ½ hours, Mike Clark of USA Today proclaimed, “It burns in the memory weeks after you see it.”
Breaking and Entering (2006) 33 percent
As complicated as the emotional terrain in Minghella’s past films has been, none reached the quicksand proportions of Breaking and Entering (33 percent). Ever-enigmatic Jude Law plays Will, a sustainable resources architect who cheats on his common law wife (Robin Wright Penn) with the mother (Juliette Binoche) of a teenage thief. The class issues are dense and prickly — what class issues aren’t? — and the relationship issues are even thornier. Perhaps this is why critics met this film with such icy remarks. Denver Post‘s Michael Booth said “leaves us too chilly to care.” But perhaps that’s the film’s purpose. In a universe of alienation, these characters may seem cool but they’re far from disaffected.
— Written by Sara Schieron, Tim Ryan, Alex Vo and Jen Yamato.