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Appreciation

For Minghella, compassion was a cinematic signature

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 21, 2008

It has been a strange year for left-field losses in the movie industry. Heath Ledger, now Anthony Minghella - both creative forces in their primes, here one minute and inexplicably gone the next. Let us hope the rule of three doesn't apply.

Whenever I think about Minghella's career, I keep circling back to "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (1990) the first and least elegant of his films - that's meant as praise - and the one that seems a blueprint for everything that came after. The through line of his movies (I haven't read the many plays that came before Minghella's move into directing) is the damned impossibility of human connection and the nearly insane lengths we go to connect anyway.

In "Truly, Madly, Deeply," the grieving wife played by Juliet Stevenson (with all faucets open) misses her husband (Alan Rickman) with such ferocity that she wills him back into ghostly existence. It's as though she never really knew him while he was alive and demands an extension on their time together. The film, a comedy soaked with tears, has been described as the thinking moviegoer's "Ghost," but it's not so much about love defeating death as it is death kissing life on the forehead and moving on. The reason the film works, though - the reason it's still my favorite of all Minghella's films - is the intemperate anger and sorrow with which Stevenson batters on the wall of the afterlife. Not a subtle movie but a deeply, even profoundly gracious one.

The director's later work was nothing if not tasteful, and gradually, I'd argue, that became a liability. "The English Patient" (1996) deserves its awards not for the scope of its epic period canvas but for its pained crisscross of love and events - for the way it shows the world's demands (and plain bad luck) thwarting desire time and time again. That's in Michael Ondaatje's original novel but Minghella envisions it with a ruthless eye, not to mention an ear for the silences between people. Like Kristin Scott Thomas's character, we're all stuck in the desert waiting for rescue.

Then there's Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a man who carries his own desert inside him. He tries peopling it by pretending to be another man - the unlucky Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law - but living in another person's skin proves as impossible as loving a ghost or another man's wife during wartime. Minghella's "Ripley" lacks the farcical nastiness of Patricia Highsmith's great novel, and I still think Damon's miscast (rightly or wrongly, I would have welcomed an actor whose edge showed a wee bit more - Christian Bale, perhaps, or Edward Norton). But where Highsmith genuinely hated people (that's what makes her writing so readable and so ugly), Minghella is moved to sympathetic awe by what they're capable of.

"Cold Mountain," in 2003? Brilliantly made but as chilly as its title, and for the first time Minghella feels hemmed in by his literary source rather than freed by it. (The less said about Renée Zellweger's Mammy Yokum impersonation, the better.) As the director's filmmaking skills grew - and "Mountain" is certainly beautiful to experience - so his characters seemed to retreat behind a veil of discreet hesitation. The same holds true of "Breaking and Entering" (2006), Minghella's first original script since "Truly": There's plenty of bad behavior, but for the first time you can feel the director reaching to make a larger point rather than letting his characters simply embody it.

And yet. Minghella's cinematic touch remains unique - a modern "Lubitschgb touch" that implied much more than it showed, minus the cynicism and in its place a measureless compassion for the silly, confused animal that is man. (Look no further than Jude Law's character in "Breaking" for confirmation.) The director's final work before his unexpected death from a brain hemorrhage was an adaptation of "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," starring singer Jill Scott as a Botswanan private eye. Hopefully it will be on HBO later this year, and then that, tragically, is all she wrote. As with Ledger, the loss for moviegoers is the work we'll never get to see.

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