- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director who helped reinvigorate British cinema, died yesterday at London’s Charing Cross Hospital after apparently routine surgery led to a brain hemorrhage. He was just 54.

Mr. Minghella, whose film “The English Patient” won nine Academy Awards, had a growth on his neck removed last week, his publicist, Jonathan Rutter, told Associated Press, adding that “the operation seemed to have gone well.”

He is survived by his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa, his actor son, Max, and daughter, Hannah, who worked as a production assistant on her father’s 1999 film “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

I interviewed Mr. Minghella at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 about “Breaking and Entering,” his last feature film. He was an immensely intelligent man but one who never let his learning lead him to pretense. That showed in his movies as well. He had a varied resume, making small relationship dramas and large-scale epics, but they all shared a deep understanding of the difficulty of communication among men and women.

He was born on the Isle of Wight on Jan. 6, 1954, to Italian immigrants. He studied English and drama at the University of Hull. He won the London Theatre Critics Circle Award for most promising playwright in 1984. That same decade, he began working in television, most notably writing episodes of the highly regarded “Inspector Morse.”

His 1990 debut film was made for TV but thankfully received a theatrical release. “Truly, Madly, Deeply” is special not just because it features Alan Rickman as a romantic lead instead of his usual role as a villain. It’s also an accomplished debut, deftly treating a difficult subject with both humor and pathos. Juliet Stevenson stars as a woman mourning the death of her beloved boyfriend. When he returns — as a ghost — to the apartment they shared, she finds it hard to deal with his new “life” and to create one for herself.

It’s a small, intimate drama, but that isn’t what Mr. Minghella became known for making. Soon after, he took on an ambitious project that might have foiled even an experienced filmmaker.

Michael Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient,” which follows the memories of a burn victim during World War II, was widely considered unfilmable. Mr. Minghella turned it into a grand epic that grossed more than $231 million worldwide and won nine Oscars, including best picture and best director. Not bad for a film with a budget of $27 million that almost didn’t get made — Fox backed out when Mr. Minghella refused to cast Demi Moore in place of Kristin Scott Thomas.

“The English Patient” will be remembered as Mr. Minghella’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. Its panoramic vistas of the desert are gorgeous, but it’s Mr. Minghella’s ability to subtly reveal the small drama amid the large that makes the movie such a tear-jerker. Ralph Fiennes played the title character, who had an affair with Miss Thomas’ married character in pre-war North Africa.

Mr. Minghella made other literary adaptations. “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, earned him another Oscar nomination for best screenplay. He returned to the epic form for 2003’s Civil War drama “Cold Mountain.” He also had a cameo appearance in last year’s “Atonement.”

Last year’s “Breaking and Entering” was a return to the small drama with big themes. Jude Law starred as a man in multicultural London who embarks on an affair with a Bosnian immigrant (Juliette Binoche, an Oscar winner as best supporting actress for “The English Patient”). Mr. Minghella told me he was “very nervous” when he began because it was his first original script since his debut. He said he actually thought, “I wonder if I can write a film.”

He could, of course. His adaptations, too, were more than mere copies. The success of “The English Patient” helped put British cinema back on the map, as did Mr. Minghella’s work as chairman of the British Film Institute. He returned to his oft-explored theme of national identity for “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which HBO just picked up as a series. Mr. Minghella recently finished the two-hour pilot.

Mr. Minghella may have had a short career. Other directors, however, will spend their entire lives trying to best “The English Patient.”

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