Dispatches: Anthony Minghella’s Talent

The writer and director Anthony Minghella died last week at the age of fifty-four.  I felt I knew him well, although I knew no biographical information about him until I began reading his obituaries.  He was the type of director who imparted quite personal feelings and predilections to giant-scale movies based on prestigious novels–a rare thing to achieve.  He did this so successfully that one felt one understood his consciousness, his interests, and especially his empathy, simply by watching his work: his films delineate themselves but also delineate a kind of negative-space portrait of the man himself.  His life details and circumstances, once you learn them, surprise one not at all.  Minghella was one of five children of Italian parents, immigrants to the Isle of Wight who ran an ice cream factory.  He was a trained classical pianist, a playwright, a director of opera, and a producer and mentor to other filmmakers (with Sydney Pollack).  All this makes sense.

Minghella, like David Lean before him, was capable of producing what you could call a “poetic” or “epic” cinematic tone.  The words are insufficiently specific: but there is a sense of scale and romance to his sequences, a briskly moving grandeur.  The most obvious example of this is of course The English Patient, where he brilliantly captured the size of the novel. (The fact that it’s hard to pin down how he achieved this adds to the accomplishment.)  Shots of Juliette Binoche riding in a military jeep are the ones I remember from the movie–it had a quick pace in moving you towards its sentimental conclusion.  Cold Mountain, also, has that quality of epic speed, of what is essentially a melodramatic romance scaled up and quickened.  (Lean was interested in unrequited love; Minghella preferred the requited version.)

Minghella seemed to do his best work when adapting other people’s novels.  His debut and original screenplay, Truly, Madly, Deeply, while a heart-warming production, tends to fulfill its own wishes too fully, admitting sorrow into its contents but offering too much consolation.  This also seemed the trouble with his most recent film, also with an original screenplay, Breaking and Entering.  The movie is about love as a way of overcoming the class barriers that separate London’s middle-class architects from its downtrodden refugees.  It is as tendentious as that summary makes it sound.  A sociologist Minghella was not–he was far too big-hearted to want to make critique his primary mode.  (There is also a bit of that English attitude, musn’t grumble, to his general embrace of possibility over complaint.)

Yet, this very ability to enter into the spirit of things is the key to his finest film, The Talented Mr. Ripley–an underappreciated classic if ever there was one.  The novel, by Patricia Highsmith, has an icy, nihilistic pessimism that forms an astringent, bracing complement to Minghella’s natural warmth.  The combination of these two elements means Ripley is both sentimentally alluring and cruelly fatalistic.  The movie is a true modern tragedy, and I could go on for pages on its many bravura cuts, small symmetries, and chilling implications.

The movie is also particularly unified, from its editing to its  sound design to its beautiful motif of fractured glass.  It is, simply, inspired filmmaking, in which the talents of, for instance, a Walter Murch find material of enough depth to motivate his aesthetic choices.  And yet, it’s the story of a social climbing sociopath–strange, at first, to think that Minghella, for whom love is the answer, so fully animated this character.  But it’s Minghella’s (and Matt Damon’s) ability to find the core of suffering, anxiety, and desire inside Ripley–Minghella’s empathetic generosity towards even such an unsympathetic madman–that make the film special and powerful.  Here, Minghella treats the dangers, instead of the rewards, of love: obsession, mimicry, compulsion.

It’s through music that Minghella finds his way into Tom Ripley, who is a prissy kid from a background he’s ashamed of trying to break in to a circle of louche American rich kids in Italy.  Minghella takes Ripley’s love of classical music from Highsmith and makes it into the preference of a precocious geek–while the wealthy youth he admires and impersonates only listen to jazz, Ripley is a classicist who subscribes to the taste preferences of their parents.  He has picked up his odd, isolated fixations without the benefit of constant social feedback from group of friends, and so his later attempts to insinuate himself into Dickie Greenleaf’s circle involve acquiring knowledge of a music he has trouble connecting to–it’s quite a perfect metaphor for the strange insider-outsider dialectic in which Ripley is caught. 

By opposing jazz and classical music, Minghella suggests unhealthy cravings lying underneath the unrippled surface of the “cool” of neo-aristocratic children of the American business elite–a class whose lack of obvious anxiety telegraphs a certainty that the world was made for them.  (In struggling to crack their smooth surface, Ripley cracks himself.)  But Minghella does not withhold his sympathies from the other characters either: Jude Law, particularly, has never been better in a role.  Law, you’ll agree, is best as an object of the camera gaze, rather than a subject for the viewer to project onto–he is a screen beauty rather than a screen protagonist–and this is maybe the only film that properly exploits this quality of his.  (If you meet someone who says the movie got boring after Law’s character exits, you know: they are essentially narcissistic, just as those who think Ripley is Minghella’s one misfire are essentially sentimentalists.)

Even better is Minghella’s portrait, entirely without precedent in Highsmith’s novel, of the anxieties and fears of the women of this same class–while Law’s Dickie and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unctuous Freddy Miles are all id, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett play women beset by insecurity.  This comes not from weakness but, for instance in the case of Paltrow’s character, from correctly surmising what is going on, only to be ignored and treated as a hysteric by the patriarchs of the film.  It’s a bleak but accurate portrait of the ways purportedly “rationalist” men of the postwar era discount “hysterical” women’s experience. 

Minghella’s gift was the sensitivity to see and represent such things.  Most often, he put it to use in the service of epic but conventional melodramas of love–but when he mixed his special talent for empathy with as bleak a vision as Highsmith’s, the result was unique and forceful: an illuminating glimpse into a darkness, that is both revealing and cathartic.  Few films have ever looked at American class consciousness as unsparingly but feelingly.  It’s just a hugely important movie.

Minghella was able to marshal all the elements of filmmaking–composition, montage, sound, music–in a way that is becoming rare, now that the era in which movies were are greatest cultural monuments recedes.  Though his films are constructed beautifully, they do not luxuriate in their construction, which is the mark of the mature artist, in whose work craft submits to a larger design.  Like a writer with a particularly pleasing style, Minghella wrote great prose, in film terms.  For that, and for the achievement of Ripley, I followed him avidly and closely.  I’m very sorry he’s gone.

Other Dispatches.