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Anthony Minghella 1954 - 2008

Posted by Wesley Morris  March 18, 2008 10:50 AM

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The English writer and director Anthony Minghella has died. His best-known movies were tony adaptations of other people's novels. He specialized in the kind of prestige films that Oscar voters went for and certain audience congratulated themselves for seeing. Minghella walked a delicate line between discretion and spectacle, class and its trappings, obsession and romance. (His first feature's title, "Truly, Madly, Deeply," could apply to every movie he made after it.)

Those combinations were famously evident in "The English Patient" (1996), from Michael Ondaatje's novel. A friend called the movie "David Lean with a brain." The movie won nine Oscars, including one for best picture and another for Minghella's directing, and became such a hotly debated cultural touchstone that "Seinfeld" built one of its best episodes around it.

But he was never better than his scathingly intelligent version of Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), about a sociopath who infiltrates jet-setting Americans in the 1950s. Minghella refashioned Highsmith's noir as a vertiginous critique of the blue-blood boys club and the women suffering on its margins. The movie also has five excellent performances from actors who, at the time, were pretty young, exciting and at the upswing of their stardom: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and, of course, Matt Damon, who hasn't been as adventurous since.

Minghella's films could be excruciatingly tasteful, too. His adaptation of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" made the Civil War seem like a pageant of art-direction and costuming for glamorous white people. (Where were these slaves we were hearing so much about?) But Minghella's sense of proportion turned out to be just right -- the beauty was a respite from the ugliness and misery that wound up taking over the movie anyway. He let Nicole Kidman radiate a Hollywood glamor that had been missing from those kinds of big Hollywood movies. She was Grace Kelly and Vivien Leigh at the same time, and yet unmistakably herself. It's one of her least appreciated performances. (In other movies, Minghella got similarly outstanding work from Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Juliette Binoche, and Robin Wright Penn. He was great with landscape and narrative structure, but he was even better with actors.)

With "Cold Mountain," his talent and storytelling judgment seduced and disarmed me. When Jude Law (Dietrich to Minghella's von Sternberg) and Nicole Kidman see each other for the first time since the war separates them, tears dripped into my lap. So for all his movie's toniness, he did something only a very good moviemakers can: he wore down my resistance and broke my heart. That's a gift the movies will really miss.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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