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Director Spotlight: Anthony Minghella

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February 1, 2007

The word "class" can't be easily used to describe the various denizens and filmmakers who frequent Hollywood. In fact, "classy" is a term that rarely applies to modern day films in general. Yet director Anthony Minghella continues to exude both class behind the camera and manages to helm some of the classiest films of the past 15 years.

February 1 - Anthony Minghella

Anthony MinghellaHis debut film, the charming and little-seen Truly, Madly, Deeply, is probably best remembered as the first time audiences saw the versatile but often typecast Alan Rickman playing a romantic lead in a light comedy. Following Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, this proved a bit of a novelty (most forget that he was a magnificent Vicomte Valmont on Broadway in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") and Rickman was delightful in a mostly forgettable film that one critic pegged "A Thinking Person's Ghost". His second film, Mr. Wonderful, was equally modest and as memorable. To be kind, its the sort of film you watch on an airplane (incidentally, that's where I first saw it!) and don't remember once you're at the baggage claim. Even with fine performances by Matt Dillon, Annabella Sciorra and (especially) William Hurt, the film is little more than a light, romantic comedy diversion (the specifics of the plot honestly aren't returning to me as I write this!).

The English Patient PosterThree years later, Minghella returned to the spotlight with The English Patient, one of the most celebrated films of the 90's and the winner of the 1996 Best Picture Oscar. In adapting the stunningly prosed but difficult novel by Michael Ondaatje, Minghella shaped a tragic love story that captured the imagination, made a talented character actor named Ralph Fiennes a full-fledged star, and beat Jerry Maguire and Fargo at earning a Best Picture statuette. While The English Patient is a take-it-or-leave-it, unabashedly romantic film that most seem to love or hate (I myself find it wildly overrated), the beauty of the film and the power of the performances (particularly Willem Dafoe's) are undeniable. A gorgeous, haunting scene in which Juliette Binoche's character is hoisted into the air to see a rare sight has never left me.

The Talented Mr. Ripley PosterThe expectations for Minghella's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley were enormous and, depending on who you talk to, were mostly met. Some were put off by the icy performance by Matt Damon as the title character and most found the film to be irredeemably creepy. I honestly think it's Minghella's best film and one of the most mesmerizing thrillers to come out of Hollywood that effectively evokes a Hitchcockian tone. Damon's performance, like his equally masterful turn in The Good Shepherd, is quiet, underplayed, and intense. He's well matched by Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and wonderful turns by Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow. From the fine Gabriel Yared score to the luminous sets and locations (Minghella has yet to shoot a film that is less than astonishingly beautiful), this sinister marvel of audience misdirection and suspense is a milestone in the careers of all involved.

While Cold Mountain was neither a juggernaut at the box office nor the Oscars, it's a great and greatly entertaining work and certainly better than The English Patient. This lavish film is a movie of moments; of the huge, distinguished cast (even Jack White is in it!), Natalie Portman's moving performance has stayed with me more than Renée Zellweger's hammy (and undeservedly praised) portrayal. While Jude Law was in his element here, Nicole Kidman's unmistakable glamour made her seem miscast as the female lead. While not perfect, overlong and not as good as the Charles Frazier novel its based on, it's full of those vivid, grandiose visions that crop up in every Minghella film. The sight of a pile of dead soldiers strewn on a battlefield is one of them.

Breaking and Entering PosterMinghella's latest, Breaking and Entering, is an expectations defier. The title suggests something like Ocean's 11, but the result is a character drama and his third film with Jude Law. The opening film at the Denver Film Fest this year and a work that has been getting politely mixed reviews worldwide, Minghella's film (which he himself wrote) is his first in a while not based on a book and a personal, thoughtful drama dealing with varying topics varying from thievery to Bosnian refugees. Minghella keeps himself busy as a producer as he executive produced The Interpreter and the terrific The Quiet American, among others.

Minghella is still growing as a filmmaker, but his resume is still impressive, if somewhat brief. It's quite likely that his best work is ahead of him and that, like his previous films, it will be a work of great class.

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