A great loss to British cinema

British film-director Anthony Minghella has died aged 54. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke assesses the life and career of Britain's modern day David Lean.British film director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella was one of the shining lights of British cinema.

Andrew Clarke

British film-director Anthony Minghella has died aged 54. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke assesses the life and career of Britain's modern day David Lean.

British film director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella was one of the shining lights of British cinema. Not only was he a giant of the British Film Industry but he was also a film-maker that the Americans trusted and felt that they could do business with.

This is reflected by the fact that during his career he picked up 25 major industry awards including the Best Director Oscar. The film-maker made his name with such epic scale movies as The English Patient with Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, The Talented Mr Ripley with Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow and Matt Damon and recently with Cold Mountain starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellwegger.

He had the reputation for being the modern day David Lean. He had the gift for telling intimate personal stories against an epic background. He always had a gift for making films about people - although the canvases were huge, the photography breath-taking, there was a human, often tragic tale, lying at the heart of virtually all his films.

Movies filled special effects did not interest him. Being a writer at heart, he always wanted to tell a story. Special effects and action sequences were only included when they were needed to advance the plot and were never included for their own sake.

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His tenure as chairman of the BFI was characterised by his nuturing of new young talent.

He moved effortlessly between theatre, television and film but it was as a film-maker and screenwriter that he made his name. Mingehlla, the son of Italian parents who settled on the Isle of Wight and founded a well-known ice cream company, first made his name as a director making the television drama Truly Madly Deeply starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman. The one-off drama for BBC 2 - a tale of Nina, a grieving teacher, whose boyfriend Jamie has died. Her grief is such that she cannot let go and move on and in her mind they are still sharing a house together.

The film is about her journey to accepting that the love of her life has died.

Minghella came to film with a towering reputation as a writer. His play Whale Music took the London theatre world by storm. He had won the London Theatre Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright in 1984, won the same award for Best New Play for Made in Bangkok in 1986 and then became script editor during 1985 for cult TV series Grange Hill.

At the time of his death he was contributing to a portmanteau movie celebrating the exuberance of New York - one of nine writer/directors supplying short, self-contained segments which capture life in The Big Apple. Among the other film-makers contributing are Scarlett Johansson, making her directorial debut and Vanity Fair director Mira Nair.

Anthony Minghella was an enthusiastic film-maker, an intelligent film-maker who will be remembered for putting literate scripts ahead of senseless spectacle. He had a knack of turning heavyweight novels into accessible, gripping movies which mainstream audiences could relate to.

The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain were all adapted from award-winning books. His latest project The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency was translated to the big screen by Suffolk-based writer Richard Curtis from the best-selling book by Alexander McCall Smith.

Although Minghella had a widescreen imagination, he was never too big or too proud to continue working for television as his work on No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency proved. It was a subject that would have easily played well in the nation's cinemas.

He was very much an actor's director - who spent long periods in rehearsal working with his actors, getting them comfortable with their roles before the cameras turned.

In fact for the launch of both The English Patient and Cold Mountain he organised rehearsed reading events with his stars Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

In fact Jude Law became something of an on-screen alter-ego for Minghella. He frequently epitomised for the director the hero of the story. Law had a timeless quality - ambivalence about his character that Minghella could mould for story-telling purposes.

Away from film and television he never lost his enthusiasm for theatre and made his operatic debut directing Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera in London in 2005. The production then opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in September 2006. The critics sneered but it was enthusiastically received by audiences.

Last year, it was announced he would direct and write the libretto for a new work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 2011-12 season.

At the time of his death Minghella had recently relinquished his role as chairman of the British Film Institute. During his time at the BFI he was very concerned to bring UK film-making back onto the world stage. When he took on the role of chairman in 2003, he told the BBC: "We're not getting enough movies made here, our studios aren't busy enough, we don't have enough studios.

"We're not good at lassoing the talent we have here and containing it within the British Isles, and we should all be working to address that."

During his tenure he saw production boom at UK studios - thanks not only to home-grown productions but also a glut of Anglo-American co-productions like Harry Potter, Bridget Jones and films like Atonement - which featured Minghella in a cameo interviewing Vanessa Redgrave.

Minghella was replaced at the BFI by the former director-general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, on March 1. Minghella was made a CBE in the 2001 Queen's birthday honours list.

He leaves a wife choreographer Carolyn Choa and an actor son Max.

BLOB: For an interview with Suffolk actor David Oyelowo, star of Anthony Minghella's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, see pages 24 and 25

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