Theatre in Wales

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An Unabashed Scrutiny of the Heart

Theatre Writer Book

Minghella on Minghella , Faber and Faber , August 15, 2016
Theatre Writer Book by Minghella on Minghella The death of Anthony Minghella in March 2008 was met with expressions of universal loss. It was a time of high activity as writer and executive producer, far too early for a memoir to have been contemplated. But he is one of a small group whose miscellaneous pieces in print have a cogency and coherence greater than many a deliberate autobiography. He is akin to Ferdinand Saussure or Gregory Bateson in that the parts he left behind have a weight to them.

Minghella's closest colleague in the film industry was Sidney Pollack and Pollack contributes the introduction to “Minghella on Minghella”. He captures the breadth of chameleon talents and the traits of his friend. “He is a realistic romanticist”, Pollack writes, “a kind of poet, disciplined by reality, an academic by training, a musician by nature, a compulsive reader by habit, and, to most observers, a sunny soul who exudes a gentleness that should never be mistaken for lack of tenacity and resolve.”

To be a sunny soul is a good way to be remembered.

The background of the family ice cream parlour is well-known. Its location on the Isle of Wight gave it an added sense of separateness. The small amount of space and the press of family gave small scope for privacy. The one film that Minghella spoke about over and over was “I Vitelloni.” The Italian realist classic was about a group of teenagers who yearn for escape from boredom and insularity. The seam of Catholicism was deep and central.

“Relationships are finally never very successful, don't really work and are always full of disappointment.”, he writes, “All human exchanges are coloured by animal instinct. We're all struggling against ourselves...that's a Catholic thing.”

There is a paradox in the role of writer-director in film. One is the steady laying down of line by line mainly alone. The other is mastery of a vast array of collaborators against the whim of circumstance. The choice of Romania for the American Civil War in “Cold Mountain” received a lot of publicity for the rigour of its conditions. Minghella did not write at speed and likened himself to a tortoise. “I can't write on the spot”, he said, “I'm not an inventive human being. So I have to sit and brood.” On the other hand he had no qualms on the film set. The racket and hubbub of so many people on the film set was like the kitchen of his family home.

Music was crucial to the writing. “I think my interest in stories came from music.” Across the forms he considered film and music were more closely related than either with theatre. “The English Patient” has no acts.” he said “But there are units, in the way that a concerto or a symphony has a discipline. There are statements and there are restatements, and an accumulation of melody and counterpoint.”

By contrast on the stage “The language of theatre is a much more chewable, active, rhetorical event and depends on a kind of completeness, whereas both film and poetry are marvellous at speaking through image and the relationship of images.” His own films were popular with big names. His inspirations were in the classics of film. “The only cinema worth talking about is the cinema which aspires to poetry: Kieslovski, Tarkovski, Cocteau, Bunuel, Olmi...Meaning in film is always carried in context.” He spoke of a culture over-infatuated with language. “The story is both the spine of every piece of dramatic fiction”, but paradoxically, “and the least significant thing about it.”

The films look good still but Minghella was his own critic. Of “the Talented Mr Ripley” which stands up very well he was modest in retrospective. “I loved the character more than the book. That may ultimately be why the film doesn't work.”

That is over-modest. The makers did have difficulty finding an ending but the first three-quarters still scintillate. His own words illuminate the rewatching. In the director's chair “You're not commanding the image. The image is commanding you. I want there to be purpose in the frame.” The lens is an innocent eye. “The camera, which just appears to be watching, is actually telling...that's the critical thing; it's not watching, it's telling.” He brought a synoptic sensibility; “architecture, film and writing are all very connected.”

The writing and the interviews hum with aphorism. “The best actors I've worked with have functioned with the same alchemy of searching and relaxation.”

Actors loved to work with him. “The only theory that I have about acting is that there's a space to work in, and the more of the space I occupy, the less space there is for the actor. So one of the things I try to do is reduce the amount of space that I take up, when I'm working with them, so that they feel that they can move into it. At the same time, there has to be a perimeter around that space so that they feel they can jump into the space without falling over.”

As for the literary influence on this supreme writer-as-craftsman he was not typical for his industry. "There was a time, for five years, when I read Beckett almost on a daily basis. The sense of language and poetry in his writing has been the single biggest influence on me as a writer."

If one line reveals the writer who straddled theatre, television and film with equal aplomb it is this one:

“I'm looking for an unabashed scrutiny of the heart, not apologising for it but yielding to it.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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