Anthony Minghella quickly vaulted onto my list of favorite directors with The English Patient. It was a beautiful movie that, in my opinion, retooled a mediocre book into a compelling epic of love, betrayal, archaeology, and war.
As a movie, The English Patient is a jaw-dropping piece of work, but not because of spectacular special effects and astonishing action set pieces. It’s an incredible movie because it weaves so many aspects of art, music, storytelling, and culture into an environment in which those ultimate symbols of humanity are endangered by war and man’s own unstoppable sense of progress. Wrapped up in John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography and Gabriel Yared’s evocative score, The English Patient itself became a work of art.
Minghella’s follow-up project moved from Egypt and the desert to Italy and the sea. The Talented Mr. Ripley proved Minghella’s own talent wasn’t a fluke as he told an ugly tale of murder and deception with the beautiful cast of Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Matt Damon.
Next, while Cold Mountain didn’t reach the same level of perfection his prior two adaptations achieved, it was an admirable work that moved to a third time period and a third continent, taking the narrative of love and conflict to the mountains of North Carolina.
In the movie world’s equivalent of fantasy football, Minghella was on my cinematic dream team. With his growing body of highly impressive work, Minghella was a fixture on my extremely short list of directors I’d select to direct the movie version of my own life.
Needless to say, when the Starz Denver Film Festival announced Anthony Minghella would attend the premiere of his latest work, Breaking and Entering, it was incredibly exciting news. At the time, I was working on a project in Atlanta, but even so I made it a point to plan ahead and arrange my schedule so that I could fly back to Denver that Thursday afternoon and drive straight from Denver International Airport to the Denver International Film Festival.
Meeting Anthony Minghella proved to be more than worth the extra effort. The man was truly gracious and so calm, a simple conversation with him on the red carpet transcended all the noise and hubbub of the festival’s electric atmosphere. Speaking with him under those conditions was like being in the eye of a hurricane. Even though activity was madly swirling around us, it didn’t matter. He was relaxed, deeply attentive, and an absolute pleasure to meet.
When I pointed out that Breaking and Entering was his first original screenplay in 15 years he advised me, with a chuckle, to not say that so loudly.
“I was desperate to write a new film that wasn’t an adaptation and I wanted to make a contemporary film at home, and a smaller film,” he said. “Somebody said to me my budgets were doubling on every movie and I wanted to go back to the kind of scale of a smaller, intimate movie made at home, and so I did. That was the motivation and then my office kept getting broken into and that gave me the idea.”
On Breaking and Entering, Minghella teamed with Jude Law for the third time and he gushed with accolades for his star. “What a thrill. I love working with him, he’s a great man; he’s great in this film. He’s never let me down, he’s a real ally of mine; we love working together. My crew loves working with him — and Juliette Binoche — it’s been a real pleasure to do this movie.”
Having taken a brief respite from literary adaptations, Minghella was setting his sights on another complicated novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, by Liz Jensen.
“I’m looking forward to doing it very much. It’s an extraordinary book about a boy who goes into a coma on his ninth birthday, through an accident, and he tries to solve the mystery of that accident in his coma. So there’s a whole world of coma characters, a whole world of real characters. It’s a very beautiful book and I’m looking forward to doing it.”
Minghella received the Mayor’s Lifetime Achievement Award that evening and Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, while presenting the award, made it clear it’s really the Mayor’s Career Achievement Award. We all had every reason to expect so many more great, great movies from Minghella in the years ahead.
In receiving the honor, Minghella showed a marvelous and surprising sense of humor. “I want to apologize because, you know, all I’m thinking about is you’ve now got to now sit through my film. When you make movies I think you have integrity and when you release them you have none whatsoever and I so wish I was now showing you the Borat movie. It’s so true.”
At that point an audience member shouted out “Ali G!” and Minghella responded, “Yes, Ali G rocks!”
“I’m honored that my movie’s going to be seen for the first time in America tonight with you. I do want to say ‘sorry’ because it’s a… it’s a complicated film. You know, you write a movie and it turns out the way it turns out. I worked with a lot of my old friends and collaborators and crew. It’s a story about a city that’s in chaos and turmoil. It’s the city I live in and I love the city, but it depends on an invisible class of people, some of whom have nothing and wish they had something, some of whom are not valued. It’s a city of migrants, and yet it’s awkward about its immigration policy. It’s a story which asks you to think again, look again at everybody, not to judge anybody by what they’ve done, what they look like, what color they are, what language they speak, what stories they have, but to give everybody another chance. So give me another chance, if you find it hard at first; it is going somewhere. It’s an odd film for the beginning of a festival, so just be gracious about that.”
Now, a mere 17 months later, the greatest, saddest plot twist of all is that Minghella’s final feature-length directorial work, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is currently airing on the BBC. It’s an adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels about a female private detective in Botswana. Having considered it a mistake to film Cold Mountain in Romania rather than in North Carolina, Minghella stuck to his spot-on instinct and filmed his adaptation on location in Botswana.