I’m afraid the untimely passing of Anthony Minghella at the age of fifty-four has me at a loss.  Those prone to mocking the ludicrousness of grieving for someone you never met will surely grumble, but when you “only connect” as Minghella did five times during the course of his frustratingly brief filmmaking career (with Truly, Madly, Deeply, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering), the emotional bond can be as intense as the most torrid love affair.

So if I was in love with the art of Anthony Minghella, I do not think it is a stretch to say that I was in love with the man as well.  He wrote and directed films that were, at their best, a perfect fusion of literature, theater and cinema.  He was a deeply sensual artist, a master of metaphor and theme, an intellectual, a humanist, a comic and, to quote his producing partner Sidney Pollack, “a realistic romantic”.  He had to be all these things to tame the difficult material that inspired him; and even when the material resisted adaptation, there was still a visual and aural sumptuousness to the completed work.  Few failures are as spiritually fulfilling as Cold Mountain (and for that you can partially thank the director’s frequent editorial collaborator, Walter Murch); it’s not often one yearns to revisit such critically flawed work.

Despite Minghella’s mastery of the craft, it was tragically unhip to admire his art.  I hated that.  And rather than rehash old thoughts, I’d rather reprint the first and third paragraphs of my DVD Journal review for The English Patient.  As I haven’t watched the film since then, I know I can’t say it more eloquently or passionately.

It was in 1996 that Anthony Minghella committed a crime called The English Patient that will likely hound him for the remainder of what one hopes will be an enduringly brilliant career. It was, and still is, a marvelous work of adaptation — a paring down and intensifying of Michael Ondaatje’s “unfilmable” fever dream of a novel that gobbled up nine Academy Awards and, most naggingly, was instantly acclaimed as a “masterpiece” by many influential film critics. And therein resides the heart of his transgression. There have, of course, been any number of runaway critical sensations since, but few have been promoted with the singular shamelessness of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, and the distaste for his media-mugging methods have unfortunately stained Minghella, whose subsequent films have been tarred in many respectable circles as little more than soulless “Oscar Bait.” This is a shame, because Minghella, while undeniably complicit in the award-whoring onslaught occasioned by these year-end releases (such lobbying is contractual), is one of the few major filmmakers working today in the literate-yet-crowd-pleasing tradition of old Hollywood epic wranglers like William Wyler, Victor Fleming, and George Stevens — men who could tame difficult texts and make them palatable for the masses, while losing none of the material’s vital intelligence. Viewed outside of the acrimonious present tense, it’s not only possible to appreciate Minghella’s sensational ability to connect with thematically complex novels and turn out structurally airtight pictures that resonate emotionally, but essential to wonder how he exists at all in a climate where simplification (e.g. Titanic or, more recently, Seabiscuit) sells. A writer-director this smart and this skilled should not be getting pilloried on the basis of his studio association…

The story proceeds briskly, so stuffed with incident that it never “breathes” like the Lean films to which it has facilely been compared. Those works were bound up in the immediacy of recently lived history, and always seemed cheerfully celebratory of nationality. Minghella’s The English Patient is their antithesis; a bold work of romantic anarchy that loathes nationalism and its attendant warfare, with Herodotus serving as its historical touchstone. Though time and place are expertly evoked through the award-winning production and costume design of Stuart Craig and Ann Roth respectively, the film often transcends its temporal trappings as it flits back and forth from present to past to somewhere in between, taking on an imagined quality that mutes any concerns about the alleged distortion of the historical record (Almasy has frequently been accused an unrepentant Nazi collaborator). Though the unavoidably burdensome narrative load probably restrains the film from taking flight as often as it should, the blurring of time creates its own sweet madness, driving the viewer into a sensual reverie as intense as Almasy and Katharine’s unforgettable Christmas dinner coupling. Meanwhile, Minghella repeatedly invokes the elemental dominion of nature that makes a mockery of man’s borders: Hana falling face first into the mud as she learns of her lover’s death; the sandstorm trapping Almasy and Katharine in the truck, encouraging their forbidden love; the fire that robs Almasy of his identity. All is perfectly in place under Minghella’s aegis, but their alchemic convergence seems the doing of a higher power.

We’ll share one more tryst with Minghella:  his made-for-television adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Thereafter, we shall carry him on our shoulders and in our hearts… truly, madly, passionately, remarkably, deliciously, jucily

My condolences to his friends and family.