Anthony Minghella, an Outsider Who Found a Way In

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Anthony Minghella

Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella had been recovering from surgery in London's Charing Cross Hospital when he died of a sudden brain hemorrhage. Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ralph Fiennes with biplane

Ralph Fiennes played the "English patient" — a man whose origins were obscure, even to himself — in the film of that title, nominated for 12 Oscars and winner of nine. Miramax hide caption

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The title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Matt Damon, right, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Davenport) was an outsider looking for a way into an exclusive world. So, in his way, was Minghella, at least at the outset of his career. Miramax hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax

Anthony Minghella, who died suddenly on Tuesday of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 54, made his first film as a cinematic outsider. He was an acclaimed British playwright moonlighting in a field he'd never so much as dipped a toe in.

So perhaps it makes sense that, in 1990's Truly Madly Deeply as in his later films, the material that most attracted him was also about outsiders.

They were complicated tales, often adapted from novels, about characters who play roles to please, or to be close to, or to deceive those they care about: Truly Madly Deeply's dead protagonist, who returns from the afterlife to comfort the woman he loves; Cold Mountain's wounded Confederate soldier, struggling home to a woman he'd barely met.

And the identity of the World War II casualty in the film Minghella is best known for — The English Patient — is nebulous, seemingly even to himself.

The English Patient, which told that man's story in achingly romantic flashbacks, won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It vaulted Minghella, after just three movies, into the ranks of Hollywood's most sought-after directors.

The film he followed up with continued his fascination with mystery and role-playing: The Talented Mr. Ripley, about a man who pretends to be someone he's not so that he can get close to the man he wishes he could be.

Minghella liked to let the music talk when he was directing. Though he wrote nearly all of his own screenplays, his films' most evocative passages are often wordless. Think of The English Patient, with its longing gazes and rippling sand dunes framed only by swells in the score. Minghella directed opera at the Met and wrote musical arrangements for the Appalachian songs he used in Cold Mountain.

And he found, in Ripley, a musical way to show that while everything about Ripley was false, it was a persuasive copy of what he admired. He did it by placing the character in a situation where he couldn't avoid singing, then having him "improvise" a jazz riff — in an uncanny imitation of Chet Baker.

Minghella's career has now been cut short before its music could play out. But he had completed another novel adaptation — The No.1 Ladies' Detective's Agency — which will be shown on British television this week. He had two more projects lined up to follow.

The eight films he had completed before he died won 10 Academy Awards and were nominated for 24. And he'd become a major film producer, as well as a director, with such pictures as Michael Clayton to his credit — an outsider no more in an industry he graced for barely 18 years.

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