Generally in these circles, we reserve our authoritative regret for the deaths of certain types of filmmakers. Hence, over the past year, the passing of those filmmakers who have attained grand critical standing, whether by virtue of long, fruitful careers outside of the mainstream (Edward Yang, Ousmane Sembene) or status as hallowed legends who helped navigate world cinema (Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni) received a lot of digital print on erudite film blogs. I fear that a director such as Anthony Minghella, who passed away today at the young age of 54, still of undisclosed causes, will not receive the same amount of reminiscence; one could argue that this is because he didn’t have a full career to prove himself, but it’s also just as likely that Minghella’s passing will be met with great disinterest due to his status as a purveyor of middlebrow. Ah, middlebrow, that terrible word that raises the cackles of any respectable Mikio Naruse retrospective–attending, Maurice Pialat–praising cinephile. Yet as simple as it is to identify Minghella’s track record as award-baiting or eminently tasteful (damning terms), it’s just as easy to overlook the genuine craft at work in some of his films. The English Patient, derided for its swoony, bodice-ripping romanticism as much as its deviations from its source novel, is nevertheless an effective period drama of the first order, layered and complex in that capital-T thematic way that displays a technical mastery of screenwriting (more than emotional subtlety, yes, but when a film is this attuned to the intricacies of human interaction and language, it seems like nitpicking). And while Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering suffered greatly for the thickness of their creation and constant underlining of their ideas, they each had moments of stunning clarity. (I still have yet to see Minghella’s lauded debut, Truly Madly Deeply.)
So I save my greatest praise for The Talented Mr. Ripley, a psychological thriller of the first order, and a lucid mix of “old-fashioned” craftsmanship with modern sensibility. Minghella reimagines Patricia Highsmith’s fifties-era novel and does something terrifyingly “middlebrow”: he fishes around for motivations, diagnoses, and pathos, and comes up with a warm-blooded image of a cold-blooded killer. It’s the kind of thing that really shouldn’t work, but Minghella shows so much interest in the main characters here that nearly every scene pops with humane fascination. Returning to Purple Noon, Ripley’s first incarnation, seems a particularly frozen, fruitless exercise after Minghella dared to describe everyone in such detail; Matt Damon manages a “sympathetic” portrayal of twinned repressed homosexuality and murderous upward mobility that manages to miraculously not offended while making you justifiably queasy; meanwhile Jude Law and Cate Blanchett’s x-ray–precise portraits of privilege prove that sociopathic behavior comes in all shapes and sizes. Minghella also adds so much ripe period detail of fifties Italy and injects so much of the film with a palpable sexual urge (it’s one of the most boldly homoerotic mainstream releases of all time, and the reason why Law became a household name) that the film even manages to catch up to To Catch a Thief, to name one work from the master this film obviously means to ape. Ripley‘s the kind of glossy prestige movie that gives the word “middlebrow” a good name, the kind that should make such classifications null. Take another look, and notice the talent we’ve lost today.