In one of those strange coincidences, I happened to buy a new DVD player the other week, and the film I chose to christen it with was The English Patient. It’s one of my favourite films, an unashamedly epic romance played out across the burning sands of Cairo, a self-conscious throwback to the kind of Technicolor splendour you associate with David Lean’s movies.
It’s interesting, perhaps, that the first time Anthony Minghella had any impression on me was over 20 years ago, when, as a young writer of television scripts, he devised a story line in Grange Hill whereby one of the school’s pupils, Zammo Maguire, became addicted to heroin. The images of Zammo, slumped into the school’s changing rooms, are ingrained in the memories of anyone in their late thirties; iconic images from our youth, up there with Tom Baker’s Doctor Who contemplating averting the creation of the Daleks, say, or the vandalism of the Blue Peter garden.
Looking back through his work prior to The English Patient, Minghella’s output seems very parochial. Apart from Grange Hill, there was Boon and the obligatory Inspector Morse episodes. 1990’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, which he wrote and directed, was originally intended for the BBC’s Screen Two strand before being upgraded to a cinema release. There’s certainly nothing inherently cinematic about it, nor is there anything to suggest in his follow-up, Mr Wonderful, an American rom-com with Matt Dillon, that he was about to make anything as extraordinary as The English Patient.
Adapted by Minghella himself from Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize novel, the film charts the tragic affair between Hungarian geographer Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kirsten Scott Thomas) the wife of one of Almasy’s colleagues on a British archaeological group based in Egypt during World War 2. Almasy recounts most of the story in flashback, after a horrific incident has left him badly disfigured. Minghella exquisitely draws the various plot strands together, effortlessly bringing into Almasy’s orbit his nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), David Caravaggio, a former spy (Willem Dafoe) and Kip Singh, a sapper in the British army (Naveen Andrews), all of whose lives are touched, to some degree, by Almasy and the events that took place in the desert.
The English Patient was a masterpiece, intelligently crafted, poetic and damn near perfect in every respect. It also sets up a constant that runs through Minghella’s films; a belief that people want to see quality movies. I also very much liked his follow-up, The Talented Mr Ripley, another literary adaptation, this time of one of Patricia Highsmith’s novels about a charming sociopath, Tom Ripley, who here murders his way round the Mediterranean during the 1950s. As with its predecessor, it’s elegant and polished, with fine performances from Matt Damon, Gwyneth Patrow and Jude Law. It has a dark heart, too, thanks to Minghella’s shrewd observations on the seductive power of money, class and sex.
I find Cold Mountain a frustrating film. Again, adapted by Minghella, from Charles Frazier’s Civil War-era novel, there’s much to admire. His cast all do excellent work – from Jude Law’s Confederate solider making the pilgrimage back to find true love Nicole Kidman, to Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ray Winstone. The scope, too, is huge and thrilling, the opening battle scenes as vivid as anything Spielberg threw at you in Saving Private Ryan. But it’s infuriatingly episodic, Minghella perhaps getting so involved with the minutiae of each different set up that he loses sight of the film as a whole.
Between them, those three films raised a jaw-dropping 24 Oscar nominations and 10 wins. A considerable achievement, by any standards, from the man who got Zammo hooked on smack.