Anthony Minghella, Bringing the Art House to the Mainstream

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 5:03 PM

Anthony Minghella brought the art house to the multiplex without forcing anyone to squirm or read subtitles. In doing so, the filmmaker created a formula that has obsessed and confounded so many moviemakers since Hollywood first erected that famous shingle in the hills.

With box office successes such as "The English Patient" and "Cold Mountain," he brought the piercing sensitivity of the literary tome into the hearts of audiences that may not have read the source material but -- when watching prestige films like these -- want to feel like they did.

Alas, Minghella, who grew up in a noisy Italian immigrant's home on England's Isle of Wight, died far too early. He passed away in London today at a youthful 54. He suffered a fatal hemorrhage at London's Charing Cross Hospital after undergoing an operation last week for a growth on his neck, according to the filmmaker's spokesman, Jonathan Rutter, news services reported.

With 1997's "The English Patient," he boiled down a blissfully idiosyncratic book to its emotional essentials. Audiences bought it -- the tragic love story of a badly burned air pilot, the nurse who takes care of him, those homemade candles, the downed plane, the African desert, the whole epic sweep. Minghella won an Oscar for best director that year, and the picture took nine awards in all.

And "The English Patient" had the dubious honor of being satirized on "Seinfeld," in an episode in which Elaine rants and raves against the movie, dismissing it as pseudo-artiness posing as meaningful romance.

The Academy nominated Minghella's screenplay for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" two years later, but did not give him the prize. For a darkly-defined movie about a murderous psychopath who gets away with his crimes, it did some talented business of its own: a respectable $81 million.

Minghella's "Cold Mountain," released in 2003, may not have wowed as many critics as his other films, it certainly reached its audience, earning $96 million, Minghella's biggest film at the U.S. box office.

Minghella, famously bald, genial and perpetually clad in black, set his professional destiny with 1990s critically lauded "Truly Madly Deeply," a "Ghost" for the arthouse set, in which a bereaved wife (Juliet Stevenson) finds love after death with her late beloved (Alan Rickman.) From that point, he set out to create stories that tested, but also enchanted, the audience. The algebra didn't always work, of course. "Breaking and Entering," in which Jude Law plays an architect who falls for the mother of a boy who burglarizes his home, wandered a little too far into the esoteric zone and didn't enjoy the same critical or commercial success of his better predecessors.

He may have passed on before he could completely fine-tune the Minghella method, but we can continue to enjoy the way his films bridged the always-daunting divide between art and entertainment.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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