The offices of Mirage Enterprises, the production company formed by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, are located in a converted chapel in North London, and there's something suitably reverential about the atmosphere as you step inside. Vast framed photographs snapped on the set of Minghella's films display a bias toward austere beauty. Gwyneth Paltrow glances enigmatically off camera between takes of The Talented Mr Ripley. And Nicole Kidman looks bored as she waits for some vital adjustment to be made to her stockings while shooting Minghella's latest picture, Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier's novel about a Yankee deserter making the pilgrimage to his lover during the American Civil War.
This episodic epic spatters its prize cast in authentic and unlovely grime. Those actors not required to get properly down and dirty in the trenches are likely to receive no less dramatic makeovers: the normally cherubic Charlie Hunnam is unrecognisable as a sneering albino with an itchy trigger-finger; Natalie Portman matures more in the space of her few scenes as a forlorn young wife than she has in the rest of her career; Renée Zellweger behaves like a trucker; and even Jude Law is mostly hidden behind a beard that would give a weaker man cause to stoop. Only Kidman emerges with her iconic allure unscathed, though it is typical of Minghella that at one point he has her walk head-first into a beam.
He is, I tell him as he puts his feet up and lights a cigarette, a compulsive undercutter. Cold Mountain is full of those moments of delicious frustration when your heart is prevented from sighing, your spirits from soaring, at the last possible second. A passionate kiss is soundtracked by a rambunctious brass band leading the march to war; an emotional confession is curtailed by someone complaining about the noise; when the lovers, Inman (Law) and Ada (Kidman), are finally reunited, there is very nearly a nasty accident because they fail to recognise each other.
There have been countless examples of this punctured romanticism in Minghella's previous work. Juliet Stevenson couldn't just cry for her dead lover in Truly, Madly, Deeply - she had to have that crucial drop of snot dangling from her nose. There was a lot hanging on that drop of snot: it was, for example, cited as one of the key differences between Truly, Madly, Deeply and Ghost. Meanwhile, every second of The Talented Mr Ripley hinged on the tension between its seductive Italian locations and the cockroach-like hero who wanted to blend in with the strutting peacocks.
Then there was The English Patient, garlanded with Oscars, but surprisingly tough on the nature of love. Like Kidman, Kristin Scott Thomas got a nasty knock on the head, bumping into scaffolding as she attempted to make an enigmatic exit. "Yes," says Minghella, warming to the subject, "and we also had 'Silent Night' played on the bagpipes as they're having an urgent moment in a cupboard. Did you notice too that when Catherine and Almasy get time alone, it quickly turns sour?" He starts reliving the scene. "'What do you hate?' 'Ownership.' It all goes very cold."
Suddenly Minghella is ambushed by a memory; his eyes glaze as he experiences again its forgotten tang. "I remember when I was a teenager - God knows why I'm telling you this, or why I thought of it - and my girlfriend and I skived off school for the afternoon to go to my house. Our tryst was interrupted by a knock at the door, and we were terrified that my parents had returned." He is fidgeting madly in his chair, and running the palm of his hand over his shaved head like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. "It was only a guy delivering coal. But I remember the feeling of embarrassment so well." The scene could have come from one of his movies - or rather, it has already come from his movies, in some form or another.
"It feels real to me," he reflects. "It's why I've always been intrigued by the 'romantic' tag that gets attached to my work. I don't think I'm romantic. There are love stories in my films, but they're always treated with a certain amount of..." He stops short of "contempt". "It's just about reminding myself that there is no free time. Nothing is allowed to exist without the context of a larger rift. In The English Patient, it's the fact that someone is suffering while there's joy. In Cold Mountain, it's the war. I feel myself not allowing characters or film to luxuriate in any moment."
For all its unforgiving battles, and an ambitious plot that hitches a ride on the back of the Odyssey, Cold Mountain is characterised most strongly by intimacy and fragility. The chemistry between Law and Kidman is palpable, but there's no avoiding the fact that they have hardly any scenes together. Paradoxically, this makes their shared time, in particular a discreetly passionate sex scene, all the more intense.
"I was thinking there was a filament to which they were clinging, which was largely illusory," explains Minghella. "They don't really know one another, and they feel stupid in some ways because they're clinging to something that might not even exist." When Inman finally reaches Ada, for example, he tells her that he received three letters from her during the years he was at war, to which she responds: "I must have sent 103." The 100 letters, mailed off into the ether, become a metaphor for this theoretical love, this symbolic obsession. "People have asked me if the studio was nervous about the ending. But what really made them nervous was how little happened between Inman and Ada. Whereas for me that was the whole point of the film. It's not a love story. It's about people clinging to notions of fidelity and truth in the face of absolutely no evidence."
The claim that emerges gradually from the movie is that the missing letters - and, by extension, language itself - are superfluous. You can count Inman's lines in the film on your digits, and the character himself is disdainful of words. "What do you call the colour of that sky?" he challenges Ida, gesturing to the stormy heavens. "Or the way a hawk flies?" This argument makes sense expressed in an art form that, at its most innovative, communicates ideas that resist language. But it's odd coming from a man who has worked so extensively with words as a playwright and in his early capacity as, among other things, script editor on Grange Hill.
"The film sentence is not based on speaking," says Minghella, lighting a second cigarette, "but on the juxtapositioning of shots. To my surprise I found I have great interest in that. I find myself not wanting to pursue a solution through language any more. Now I'm more intrigued about how to make the shot have purpose." That's a good word - it sums him up. His manner is casually confident, like a groovy drama teacher, but each phrase is weighed very... well, purposefully. I think it would bother him greatly if he didn't feel that sense of validity. "I want my films to have some kind of moral gymnasium in them," he says with undisguised urgency. "I've got to persuade myself that I'm not just telling a story, that there's something worth saying, a struggle worth sharing. There may not be, but that's what gets me up in the morning."
He is, however, trying to correct what he calls his "overdeveloped internal life and undernourished external life". For that reason, the character with whom he identifies most closely in Cold Mountain is Ada: she flounders around on her late father's farm, scrapping absurdly with roosters, allowing the garden to become overgrown, and generally finding that a privileged education counts for little when you need to grow your own meals, and quickly. As if to underline what he perceives as his own distance, Minghella wrote the screenplay in a room he had designed in a cottage in Hampshire, situated on a working farm. He surrounded himself with everything he needed - books, paints, research materials, music, a piano. It's beginning to sound like the feed-line for a joke, isn't it? The gag is that he was cocooned in that room, writing about life on a farm ("Bird's got a purpose, seed's got a purpose, shit's got a purpose," runs one line in the film), while outside it was happening for real. "I realised I didn't have the faintest idea what the farmers were up to," he shrugs. "I wanted to force myself out of this corseted, intellectual life. And, in a very rudimentary way, I did. I started to pay more attention to the animals." Well, it's a start.
Minghella is a great believer in what he calls "opening up" during the creative process. "If you open up, if you surrender yourself," he tells me, "everything will come to you." He is not averse, for instance, to drawing from his dreams; the image in The Talented Mr Ripley of the Madonna rising to the water's surface, followed by a corpse, came from a dream. I remind him, too, of a dream he once wrote about in an article on The Others. In it, Minghella was haunted by the idea that he had allowed his house to fall into disrepair. Its gardens, like Ada's, were being strangled by weeds. He found himself subjected to the disapproving glances of better-off neighbours, again foreshadowing Ada.
"I'd forgotten all about that," he says, shaking his head. "Yes, it was an ongoing dream that played into this very primal anxiety we have about neglect. A fear that we're not paying attention. What was strange was that the dream would not resolve itself during the day. I started wondering if I really had left a property that I'd forgotten about. I'm a very guilt-ridden person. That's in all my films; they're very Catholic. I don't fully understand it. I don't fully want to understand it. But I know there's a lot of struggle with myself just to know how to live better." He pauses for emphasis. "How to be better."
'Cold Mountain' is released on 26 DecemberReuse content