British filmmaker Anthony Minghella, who died Tuesday at 54, always seemed like an anachronism, though he hit his stride in the mid-’90s with both critics and audiences. He helped define the industry’s cutting edge by creating films that were gloriously old-fashioned. The kind of movies he specialized in — sweeping period dramas based on tony literature — were the kind of movies Hollywood had all but abandoned by the mid-’90s. Yet Minghella’s success with such movies (particularly 1996′s The English Patient) made Miramax an Oscar factory and helped effect a shift in power from the major studios to the art-house distributors.
Minghella directed only six features (a seventh film, a feature-length TV pilot for a BBC series based on Alexander McCall Smith’s novel The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, was recently completed), but almost all of them made a big splash. All of them were unusually literate, including the romantic comedies that were his first two films: Truly Madly Deeply (which posited that, if the dead came back, they’d spend their time watching classic movies) and Mr. Wonderful (in which blue collar New Yorker Matt Dillon learns to appreciate ex-wife Annabella Sciorra’s yearning for a more literary, academic life). For his third film, however, he shifted away from these small-scale romances for a sprawling epic based on Michael Ondaatje’s seemingly unadaptable novel The English Patient. The film was a huge gamble for Miramax, with its $27 million budget (big money for an indie film in those days) and relative lack of star power (Kristin Scott who?), but it paid off with a worldwide gross of $232 million and nine Oscars (out of 12 nominations), including Best Picture and Best Director for Minghella.
MInghella followed up with two more sweeping literary period dramas,The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). Both wereglossy, Oscar-baiting movies with big philosophical ideas dramatized inaudience-friendly ways with attractive, A-list stars. Ripley was widelyhailed, Cold Mountain less so (though it also grabbed a slew of Oscarnominations and won one for supporting actress Renee Zellweger). Hisreturn to present-day tales with 2006′s Breaking and Entering (hisfirst film not based on a book since 1993′s Mr. Wonderful) was evenless eventful; it barely made a ripple with critics or audiences. Whoknows whether Ladies Detective Agency would have put his career back ontrack, or whether he would have returned to the formula that made him aname director, but the successes of recent movies like Atonement andThe Hours owe much to the template he created.
I met Minghella when English Patient came out. He was thoughtful,cheerful, modest, and he thought it was no big deal that he had taken aseemingly unfilmable novel, made it into a smart but accessibleromantic epic, and in the process revived a genre thatHollywood had given up on. He’d simply made the movie he wanted tomake. He seemed little aware of the seismic shift he’d just effected —that he’d made the multiplex safe once again for grown-ups. Hopefully, it can stay that way without him around to lead by example.
CORRECTION: We accidentally published the wrong photo with this item before replacing it with the photo above. Our apologies, and thanks to the sharp-eyed among you who caught the mistake.