- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Despite a record of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain”), director Anthony Minghella wrestled with self-doubt as he approached his latest film, “Breaking and Entering.”

“I was very nervous because I hadn’t written an original film since ‘Truly Madly Deeply,’ ” the filmmaker said last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, referring to his 1991 debut.

“I wonder if I can write a film,” he remembers thinking. “I’d been so dependent on the crutch of a good book that I worried I would have nothing to say. I was surprised by maybe wanting to say too many things.”

“Breaking and Entering” stars Jude Law as a London architect and Robin Wright Penn as his live-in Swedish girlfriend. The architect embarks on an affair with a Bosnian refugee (Juliette Binoche), the mother of the teenager who’s been breaking into his office.

“It’s an action film with no action,” Mr. Minghella jokes.

An intimate, scaled-down film, “Breaking” may surprise those expecting the sweeping historical and geographic backgrounds of Mr. Minghella’s tear-jerking romantic epic “The English Patient,” which won nine Oscars, including best picture and best director.

There’s a tension “between what I want to write about and what I want to look at,” says Mr. Minghella, who comes off as exceedingly intelligent but never pretentious.

“I love scale in movies,” he explains. “I just want to be transported, I want the camera to go exploring. I loved in ‘Cold Mountain’ having a thousand people running around. But I have very tiny handwriting, and I think my interests are very small.”

The themes of “Breaking” should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed Mr. Minghella’s work or his life. The 53-year-old director was born to Italian immigrants and raised on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England. He studied English and drama at the University of Hull.

He’s married to Carolyn Choa, a Hong Kong-born choreographer, with whom he recently worked on his operatic debut. His stark, revelatory production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” premiered at the English National Opera in 2005 and opened the Metropolitan Opera season in New York this past fall.

Mr. Mingella would have liked to become a composer; he began his career writing incidental music for the theater. He says he likes working with Gabriel Yared — who won an Oscar for his “English Patient” score — because he “lets me into the compositional process a lot.”

His love of music is evident in his films. He even plays the celesta in the score of his current film, which, like many of his others, features the music of J.S. Bach.

Noting that he listens to Bach “every day,” he confesses, “Films always end up being a kind of advertisement for things you’re interested in.”

In “Breaking,” he manages to relate his love of Bach to his continuing wonder at the irreducible individuality of people. “The last thing you’d imagine when you see a kid breaking into the building is that you’d go and find a mother from Bosnia who plays the piano, who’s playing Bach,” he says.

“It’s a film about understanding how much we don’t know about the world and how our prejudices assert themselves,” he says.

The film’s score, he says, is “very quiet” — much like the film’s performances and directorial voice. “I remember the studio saying, ‘When are we going to get the big themes?’ ” Mr. Minghella recalls. “The film is trying to invite you in a bit and not be too declarative.”

Mr. Minghella’s London — specifically, the up-and-coming area of King’s Cross — is a multicultural melting pot. Making the film shattered even some of his own preconceptions.

“It’s written, this movie, in a place that I live in and have lived in for 25 years,” he says. “I thought, when I started writing, I knew about it, and all the film taught me was how little I knew about my neighbors, about the policing of the area, about the languages spoken, about the expectations of the people in the area.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

Difficult ‘Situation’

Actress Connie Nielsen began her career alongside her mother, the pair performing in political revues in their native Denmark.

“It commented [on the latest news] in a humorous way, yet it had a seriousness about the issues of the day,” says Miss Nielsen, a stunner best known for her work in 2000’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator.”

Miss Nielsen’s newest film tackles the current Iraq war, and there’s not a bit of levity to be found.

“The Situation” follows a war correspondent (Miss Nielsen) involved with a military man (Damian Lewis) and an Iraqi photographer (Mido Hamada) who risks his life for her safety.

Their romantic triangle is inevitably overwhelmed by the ugly facts on the ground. Civilians and U.S. soldiers are dying at the hands of insurgents, backroom deals are the law of the land, and even the most peaceful of Iraqis can get caught in the crossfire.

“It’s striving in the purest way … in the most politically disinterested way, to describe what’s going on,” says the glamorous actress, previously seen in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” and 2005’s “The Ice Harvest.”

When she first read the film’s script, she appreciated how it took the time to elucidate the political and tribal differences roiling the nation. Some viewers may find such thoroughness overwhelming. Miss Nielsen thinks otherwise.

“Like [playwright] David Mamet says, the more you have to lean forward, the more you get involved,” she says.

“The Situation” is the first feature to directly explore the Iraq war. Upcoming films like “Grace Is Gone” and “Home of the Brave” deal with the war’s fallout. The sound of gunfire is rarely absent from the Iraqi neighborhoods shown here, and optimism is in short supply.

The actress spoke with a number of journalists covering the conflict, as well as screenwriter Wendell Steavenson (who also served as a war journalist), to prepare for the shoot.

“They all vary in describing what’s going on over there,” she says.

One frustration of life there is what she calls the powerfully anti-democratic system that bubbled up in Saddam Hussein’s absence.

“If you want anything done, you have to go to the sheik or the local power broker,” she says.

If there’s a bias in “The Situation,” it’s in depicting just how muddled the occupation truly is, although some will see one particular story line, about two Iraqi teens inadvertently killed by American troops, as a cheap shot.

Exhausted by political bickering, Miss Nielsen refrains from commenting directly on the Bush administration’s conduct of the war.

“These have been such terribly partial times, haven’t they?” she asks rhetorically. “There’s no consensus that there’s anything such as the truth. … You can all come to at least some agreement on what is the reality. Let’s all agree this is a problem.”

Christian Toto

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