But the one yardstick by which Hollywood measures success, he couldn't produce: his films were rarely moneyspinners. And now he was in the middle of making a small, relatively low-budget film filled with little-known actors that has absolutely no appeal to ticket-buying, popcorn-munching 18-to-24-year-old males and it's not even showing in cinemas, instead going straight to TV. Could it possibly be a hit? "I've given up thinking about results," Minghella told TIME recently. "It's just all about the process. As long as I'm working with good people and we enjoy working together, that's the result."
Audiences will get to see the fruits of that process on Easter weekend, when the BBC/HBO-produced No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency airs in the U.K. It could pull in the largest British audience for a Minghella film in a long while. But Minghella will never know. The screenwriter and filmmaker died from a hemorrhage on March 18, at the age of 54.
In a sense, it's apt that his last film be shown on TV, the medium in which he started his career. Having grown up in the Isle of Wight, he graduated from the University of Hull in North Yorkshire, England, and started writing plays that won him a few awards, before going on to become a TV script editor and writer. After his feature debut, the 1990 comedy Truly, Madly, Deeply, starring Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson, there was the low-key comedy Mr. Wonderful with Matt Dillon and Mary-Louise Parker. Then came The English Patient, which won nine Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture and suddenly people started paying attention. "He directed most of The English Patient with an ankle in plaster, never losing his gentle humor and precision," said Ralph Fiennes, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Count Laszlo de Almasy, in a statement. "His films deal with extreme aloneness and the redemptive power of love, even at the moment of death. I will remember him as a man who always wanted to get to the heart of the matter."
Minghella had a thing for literary adaptation, and he also had a knack for it. He could translate the feel of a book onto the screen without making the viewer feel like they were reading a book. He showed off his skills yet again with 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel and the first of three films he made with Jude Law. "He was a brilliantly talented writer and director who wrote dialog that was a joy to speak and then put it onto the screen in a way that always looked effortless," Law said in a statement. "He made work feel like fun." Law and Minghella also worked together on another adaptation, 2003's American Civil War epic Cold Mountain and Minghella's last big-screen feature Breaking and Entering, released in 2006.
In a time when Jason Bourne and James Bond are worshiped like cinema kings, when quick cuts and chase scenes are box office gold, Minghella's films seem to come from a bygone era. The lingering shots; the scenes that measure out in minutes, not seconds; the dialogue where silence says as much as words his motto could have been "Just Because Nothing Happens Doesn't Mean Nothing Is Happening." Watching a Minghella film takes patience, but it can be a rewarding wait. "He was not a stylist as a director," David Puttnam, a British film producer and friend of Minghella's, told the BBC. "He saw himself as a storyteller and his films were very well told, beautifully made and beautifully acted."
And when he wasn't telling stories on film, Minghella was telling them on stage. In 2005, his version of Puccini's Madame Butterfly there were puppets! won rave reviews in London and New York City. Minghella had also just stepped down as chairman of the British Film Institute, the organization that oversees the British film industry. Minghella may have danced with Hollywood, but his heart still belonged to British film, and his dedication to his home's film industry was given royal recognition when he was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2001.
A year ago, Minghella was in Botswana shooting what would be his final film and clearly enjoying himself. While many directors run their shoots like military camps, Minghella's was more like a summer camp. Friends and family would flit in and out, as the director discussed shots with his cast, asking their opinion, taking it on board. Everyone knew everyone's name. They all hung out together, ate together, laughed together. And when the camera was rolling, Minghella would shoot take after take after take, savoring the act of filmmaking, not wanting it to end. Because the process was always the best part.
With reporting by Alex Perry/Gaborone
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Ralph Fiennes won an Oscar for his role as Count Laszlo de Almasy in The English Patient. Fiennes lost that year to Geoffrey Rush.