Jonathan Romney: Noises Off

Anthony Minghella shot for the stars but still kept his feet on the ground

In Britain, we're used to seeing our directing talents fly the coop for Hollywood. But Anthony Minghella – who died from a haemorrhage last week, aged 54 – managed to have the best of both worlds. He was a cosmopolitan film-maker, an Oscar-winning writer and director of films such as The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, which combined the complex values of European art cinema with the executive panache of the Hollywood epic. At the same time, he remained a very visible, and approachable, part of the British film industry; while success made him a formidable transatlantic player, he was never seen as a creature of either Los Angeles or New York.

As a director, he was universally respected, even if critics were sometimes wary of his work. It was possible to admire his ambition and integrity, while sometimes wishing the films were a little less monumental. His cameo appearance last year in Joe Wright's Atonement was significant: it suggested that Minghella had become a godfather to a school of film-making that was literate, grand-scale, rather bombastic, but tending somewhat to middle-brow prestige. Yet conservatism was not a charge that could be levelled at The English Patient (1996): it will endure as one of the more dream-like, aesthetically idiosyncratic films ever to score an upmarket hit worldwide.

Minghella's last big film, Cold Mountain (2003), was more academic, yet found room for introspective moodiness within its epic scale. But The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) is a special achievement: a provocative re-reading of an already legendary anti-hero, the film succeeds both as a study in criminal psychopathology and as an elegant evocation of a certain cosmopolitan milieu of the American and European 1950s.

Minghella was nothing if not stylish. I once did a long interview with him on stage at Goldsmiths College, south London: he was expansive, affable, open to dialogue with the audience. As chairman of the British Film Institute (BFI), he was a charismatic fixture on London Film Festival opening nights. His cameo as a TV arts show host in Atonement made perfect sense: he could easily have had a Melvyn Bragg-style sideline as an erudite arts pundit, but when interviewing others on stage, his mischief and ebullience could sometimes run away with him.

Minghella was one of the handful of British directors who could talk of their love of world cinema and sound plausible. At the BFI, his urbane style made him a persuasive figurehead.

He wasn't a man to forget his roots: he frequently paid tribute to his Isle of Wight origins. He also stayed true to London, the city that kick-started his directing career with the 1990 supernatural romance Truly Madly Deeply. That film attempted to deal with big emotions – love, grief and joie de vivre – in a way that felt bracingly un-English.

After three globe-trotting productions, Minghella returned to London in his last cinema feature, Breaking and Entering (2006), inspired by the changing geography and economy of King's Cross. Though not entirely convincing, it showed Minghella with his sleeves rolled up: working with a smaller budget and showing a curiosity for the everyday. As executive producer on last year's US thriller Michael Clayton, he also contributed to the resurgence of intelligence and maturity in Hollywood.

Following The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, screening tonight on BBC1, his next planned feature, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, promised to venture into new, eccentric territory.

Anthony Minghella remains an imposing model for the commercially minded European director: he proved you could aim for the skies, and still keep your feet on the ground.

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