A director known primarily for his classy, richly textured screen adaptations of famous novels, Anthony Minghella gained international recognition with his 1996 adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, the film ultimately won nine including Best Film and Best Director statuettes for Minghella.
Born to Italian parents on the Isle of Wight on January 6, 1954, Minghella grew up next door to the neighborhood cinema. An early film devotee, he managed to score free film admission by befriending the cinema's projectionist. Despite his lifelong interest in the cinema, Minghella took a long and circuitous path to filmmaking. After earning a degree from the University of Hull, where he lectured on literature, he began writing plays. In 1984, three years after he started his playwriting career, he was named Most Promising Playwright of the Year by the London Theatre Critics. Further adulation followed in 1986 when Minghella's Made in Bangkok was named the year's best play.
Minghella, who had also written for television and radio, made his film directorial debut in 1991 with Truly, Madly, Deeply. A romantic fantasy starring Juliet Stevenson as a musician whose beloved boyfriend (Alan Rickman) returns to her from the dead, it marked an extremely auspicious beginning for the director. The film earned a number of international awards, including the Australian Film Institute's prize for Best Picture. Minghella's follow-up, Mr. Wonderful (1993), was his first Hollywood production. A drama starring Matt Dillon, Annabella Sciorra, Mary-Louise Parker, and William Hurt, it proved to be a disappointing experience for its director, who became very disillusioned with major-studio filmmaking.
Despite Minghella's disenchantment with Hollywood, when he began adapting The English Patient for the screen in 1995, he did so with the intention of making the film in concert with 20th Century Fox, who ended up retracting its involvement five weeks before shooting was to begin. It was only after producer Saul Zaentz persuaded the independent and more artistically adventurous Miramax to finance the film (the studio eventually provided 26 million dollars of the film's 31-million-dollar cost) that The English Patient became a reality. In the final analysis, it was the film that made Miramax's reputation to a large degree and put Minghella on the cultural map. A lush romantic drama starring Ralph Fiennes as an enigmatic Hungarian adventurer, Kristin Scott Thomas as his married lover, and Juliette Binoche as the nurse who cares for him after he is horribly burned, it was one of the year's biggest hits. Earning a privileged spot on nearly every critic's "year's best" list, the film swept the international awards and propelled Minghella into the realm of A-list directors. It also won the 1996 Oscar for Best Picture.
Minghella remained on somewhat familiar ground for his follow-up to The English Patient, a 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. A lush period thriller set in '50s Italy, it featured cinematography by John Seale, who had earned an Oscar for his work on The English Patient, and the starring lineup of Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Thanks to its strong cast (particularly Jude Law, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the spoiled, doomed Dickie Greenleaf), stunning production values, and deft direction by Minghella The Talented Mr. Ripley became a broad critical success and gleaned several award nominations in the States, including a Best Adapted Screenplay nod at the 1999 Academy Awards, Golden Globe nominations for Best Director and Screenplay, and a Best Director nod for Minghella from the National Board of Review.
Minghella subsequently embarked on another literary adaptation, bringing Charles Frazier's celebrated Civil War novel Cold Mountain to the screen. It took the director three years to turn out the film, which was finally released Christmas Day 2003. Starring Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Jude Law, and Donald Sutherland, Mountain received far more divisive reviews than Ripley had, but it still garnered seven Oscar nominations, including a win for Zellweger as Best Supporting Actress.
In 2004, Minghella signed with Miramax to write and direct two films on slightly scaled-down budgets. The first Miramax project, Breaking and Entering (2006), was set in a multicultural, contemporary London and charted the relationship between an architect (Jude Law) and a young Bosnian thief (Rafi Gavron). Also starring Robin Wright Penn as Law's long-time girlfriend and Juliette Binoche and the thief's mother, Breaking and Entering received a very limited release and a generally negative response from critics, who found it rather lackluster despite a stellar cast and some worthy performances. The second Miramax project, "The Ninth Life of Louis Drax," was to be an adaptation of Liz Jensen's novel, which hadn't yet gone to press at the time of Minghella's contract. A psychological thriller set in France, the film -- like the novel -- was to tell the story of a comatose nine-year-old survivor of nine nearly fatal accidents, one for each year of his life, which could suggest foul play by the victim's absent father.
That project never came to be, as Minghella died suddenly and arbitrarily in mid-March 2008, when -- after undergoing a routine neck operation at Charing Cross Hospital in London -- he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. The director was 54. At the time of his death, he co-ran Mirage Entertainment with industry veteran Sydney Pollack, and was still in production on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a made-for-television feature scripted by Richard Curtis about an all-female cadre of private investigators headquartered in Botswana. In his later years, Minghella had also branched out into producing, with features including Michael Clayton (2007), Margaret (2007), and The Reader (2008) to his credit.