Truly, Madly, Sadly

Anthony Minghella’s best movie was his first one.

Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella, the British director and screenwriter who died of a brain hemorrhage yesterday at the age of 54, will probably be remembered for his 1996 film, The English Patient, which won nine Academy Awards, including best director and best picture. At the time, that sweep was seen as heralding a new age of recognition for smaller, independent films at the Oscars—a theory that held water about as long as Titanic, which came along to claim the top honors the very next year.

But even if The English Patient didn’t single-handedly end the reign of the award-grabbing blockbuster, it does look, in retrospect, like a turning point for international-prestige cinema. Like the next two films Minghella would write and direct, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, it was a glossy, high-toned literary adaptation with a handsome international cast, intelligent without being inaccessible, middlebrow without being dumb. Minghella was sometimes compared to David Lean, the British director of epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. He specialized in lush, sweeping historical dramas that you could feel good about taking your grandmother to see on Christmas Day, even if their subject matter (the memories of a Nazi collaborator, the machinations of a murderous identity thief) could be forbiddingly dark.

Because he died with decades of work still ahead of him, we’ll never know whether Minghella would have made another movie with the lasting power of his first one, Truly, Madly, Deeply, a 1990 made-for-television comedy that was successful enough to gain a big-screen release and a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. The story of a grief-stricken pianist (Juliet Stevenson) whose cellist lover (Alan Rickman) comes back from the dead to hang around the house they once shared, Truly, Madly, Deeply is on my semisecret list of all-time favorite movies. Semisecret because I don’t know that I could entirely defend the choice: It’s not as if the film is formally innovative or visually impressive or thematically original. It’s just so damn wonderful.

The ghost who comes back to help his or her loved ones mourn is a familiar figure, from Hamlet to Ghost (also released in 1990) to such recent grotesqueries as P.S. I Love You. But Truly, Madly, Deeply manages to make that familiarity feel less like a cliché than a profoundly resonant archetype. The scene in which Rickman’s character, Jamie, first appears to Nina (Stevenson) is an example of how Minghella tweaks a formula to evoke the agony of real grief. As the bereft Nina sits playing the piano, the camera revolves to reveal the blurred outline of Jamie sitting behind her, accompanying her on his cello. At first we take this as a familiar bit of cinematic syntax: Jamie isn’t really there, we’re just seeing a symbol of Nina’s memory of him. Any minute now, she’ll snap her head around and see only an empty chair. Instead, Jamie puts down his cello and moves out of the frame himself, confirming the viewer’s assumption: His presence was just a figment of her imagination. The camera then pans a little to left to reveal the unambiguously real Jamie, and we realize at the same moment Nina does that the man she buried months ago is standing in her living room. What follows is a reunion scene that, even in this decontextualized and blurry clip, should reduce anyone who’s ever loved and lost—or even just loved—to a quivering jelly.

Minghella started his career as a stage director, and his touch with actors is palpable in every scene of Truly, Madly, Deeply. Rickman and Stevenson, both extraordinary performers, are given the freedom to improvise in scenes like this one, in which she dances around the living room as they belt out a decidedly amateur version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” The result is an on-screen romance of unusual texture and intimacy. By the time Jamie is ready to rejoin the world of the shades, you sense the true magnitude of what both he and Nina have lost (and if you’re me, you’ve also developed a debilitating, lifelong crush on Alan Rickman).

Over the years, I’ve discovered that there’s a kind of secret cult for Truly, Madly, Deeply. People who have no clue who Anthony Minghella is can passionately quote great chunks of dialogue from this film. The movie’s potent appeal isn’t surprising; how many psychologically accurate portraits of grief also hold up as romantic comedies that are both funny and madly romantic? I’ve recommended Truly, Madly, Deeply to friends mourning their own losses as a kind of homeopathic remedy. And I have one friend who watched it with his ailing wife only weeks before she died, both of them laughing and crying as they wondered what kind of ghost she would be.

The British film industry is still stunned by the unexpected and early death of Anthony Minghella, who was an important figure there; he held the title of commander of the British Empire and was, until recently, the chairman of the British Film Institute. Minghella also leaves behind a wife and two children. (His 22-year-old son, Max Minghella, has acted in several films, including Syriana and Art School Confidential.) It might make Minghella happy to know that those still figuring out how to mourn him can turn to his own best movie for advice.