Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” died suddenly at age 54 Tuesday morning. Minghella had undergone an operation on his neck at a London hospital when he suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Minghella, who directed seven films in his too-short career, specialized in bringing literary novels to the screen. Only two of his movies were based on original screenplays: His 1991 debut, the fantasy romance “Truly Madly Deeply,” and the 2006 Jude Law-Juliette Binoche drama “Breaking and Entering,” which used the story of a crumbling marriage to examine life in contemporary, multicultural London.
But it was Minghella’s adaptations of novels - some of them seemingly unfilmable - that earned him the most success. “The English Patient,” which won nine Oscars in 1997 (including Best Picture and Best Director), was a sweeping war-time romance reminiscent of old-school epics such as “Doctor Zhivago,” that preserved the structural complexity of Michael Ondaatje’s novel to tell the story of a burned plane crash survivor (Ralph Fiennes) and the nurse (Binoche) caring for him.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) furthered Minghella’s reputation as a maker of commercial, accessible films rooted in literature. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, the elegant film (which earned five Oscar nominations) also demonstrated Minghella’s knack for casting, permanently elevating then-“Good Will Hunting” darling Matt Damon to leading-man status. The movie also propelled the careers of the all-star supporting cast, easing the way for Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett to become stars in their own right.
Minghella continued to concentrate on filming novels with 1993’s “Cold Mountain,” his adaptation of Charles Frasier’s hugely popular Civil War romance that starred Law and Nicole Kidman. Although it did not share the same critical and popular success as his previous two films, “Cold Mountain” did earn seven Oscar nominations, winning one for Best Supporting Actress Renee Zellweger.
Like golden-era Hollywood directors John Ford and John Huston, Minghella had no discernible visual style or stamp. Instead, his films were handsomely photographed, elegant productions that emphasized characterizations and performances as strongly as plot.
Viewers may not remember the entire storylines of “Mr. Ripley” or “The English Patient,” but they probably remember specific moments - Hoffman’s memorable quip, “How’s the peeping, Tom?” or Fiennes carrying Kristin Scott Thomas out of a cave - because Minghella paid as much attention to the inner lives of his protagonists as he did to matters of cinematography and editing. It is their characters, above everything else, that give movies the power to endure.
One of five children, Minghella grew up above an ice cream parlor owned and operated by his parents on the Isle of Wight. In a 2003 interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Minghella spoke about his attraction to adapting renowned novels.
“I don’t hold with the notion that only bad books make good movies. That’s the advertised idea of Hollywood. Why would something like that be true? I think what is behind this is the disavowal of narrative in 20th-century literature - that most modern literature is an argument with fiction. The novel in its heyday, in the 19th century, was all about story and entertaining an audience with a tale, then using the structure of a tale to convey thematic notions and political notions, or theoretical notions. I love that idea. Film tends to work best when it’s in the safe hands of a storyteller.”
Minghella recently completed shooting on what will be his last completed film, which brought him back to the world of literature. “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” based on the best-selling novels by Alexander McCall Smith, is the two-hour pilot for an intended series co-produced by HBO and the BBC about a detective agency in Botswana.