Anthony Minghella, a screenwriter, opera director and the Oscar-winning filmmaker of “The English Patient,” died of a hemorrhage Tuesday at age 54.
Minghella’s death came five days before the British TV premiere of his final film, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”
Spokesman Jonathan Rutter said Minghella died early Tuesday at London’s Charing Cross Hospital. Rutter said Minghella underwent surgery last week for a growth in his neck. He said the operation “seemed to have gone well. At 5 a.m. today he had a fatal hemorrhage.”
Britain’s arts community reacted with shock to the loss of one of its best-known and best-liked figures. Tributes poured in from people as diverse as movie star Jude Law, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the president of Botswana.
Law, who appeared in three of Minghella’s films, said he was “deeply shocked and saddened.”
“He was a sweet, warm, bright and funny man who was interested in everything from football to opera, films, music, literature, people and most of all his family whom he adored and to whom I send my thoughts and love,” said Law, who appeared in Minghella’s films “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “Breaking and Entering.” “I shall miss him hugely.”
Blair, who became friends with Minghella after the filmmaker directed a Labour Party election commercial in 2005, said Minghella was “a wonderful human being, creative and brilliant, but still humble, gentle and a joy to be with.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Minghella was “one of Britain’s greatest creative talents, one of our finest screenwriters and directors, a great champion of the British film industry and an expert on literature and opera.”
Minghella was in Botswana recently filming an adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which the BBC plans to broadcast Sunday. A spokesman for Botswana’s President Festus Mogae said Minghella’s death was a “shock and an utter loss.”
The project was the latest of Minghella’s literary adaptations, which also included the Italy-set thriller “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the U.S. Civil War saga “Cold Mountain” and the World War II-era story “The English Patient,” which came out in 1996 and earned the Academy Award for best picture, with Minghella winning an Oscar for best director.
But Minghella, who began his career as a writer, confessed he was not sure of his place as a director.
“I am a writer who was able to direct the films that I write,” he said recently. “It is a naked thing to admit, but I feel very strongly that I want people to appreciate that I am not just a flash in the pan.”
Minghella also turned his talents to opera. In 2005, he directed a highly successful staging of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the English National Opera in London — choreographed by Minghella’s wife, Carolyn Choa.
The following year, he staged it as the season opener of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Minghella was working with composer Osvaldo Golijov on a new opera titled “Daedalus,” for which he was to write the libretto and direct. It was to have premiered in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011-12 season.
Met general manager Peter Gelb remembered how the chorus invented its own award to present to Minghella during “Madama Butterfly.”
“He was a brilliant renaissance man. This wasn’t just a gifted filmmaker,” Gelb said. “He was a musician, played the piano, was a playwright. It’s a tremendous loss. It’s very sad for me and the Met. He was deeply loved by everybody he came into contact with at the Met, from the performers to the stage crew. They respected him and his clarity of thinking and his kindness.”
Born in 1954, Minghella grew up on the Isle of Wight, a holiday island off England’s southern coast where his Italian parents ran an ice cream factory, and studied at the University of Hull in northern England.
Minghella came to moviemaking from a playwrighting career on the London “fringe” and, in 1986, on the West End with the play, “Made in Bangkok,” a hard-hitting look at the sexual mores of a British tour group in Thailand.
He also wrote for radio and television, penning episodes of the BBC kids’ drama “Grange Hill” and the popular detective series “Inspector Morse.”
Film was a natural progression.
“I was never happy writing plays just set in rooms,” Minghella told The Associated Press in a 1996 interview. “I wanted the plays to move and for time to shift — a more liquid way of storytelling.”
His biggest hit was “The English Patient,” a romantic epic set against the backdrop of World War II that won nine Oscars and became such a part of pop culture, it inspired an entire “Seinfeld” episode.
The success of the film, which also starred Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, was evidence of Minghella’s strengths. It was adapted from a poetic, multi-stranded novel by Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje that many considered unfilmable. In Minghella’s hands it was lush, evocative and epic.
Minghella typically wrote and directed his films — to acclaim, in the cases of “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” less successfully with “Breaking and Entering,” an underpowered 2006 drama set in London’s gritty King’s Cross district.
The 1999 movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” starring Matt Damon as a murderous social climber, was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and earned five Oscar nominations, including best screenplay for Minghella.
His 2003 “Cold Mountain,” based on Charles Frazier’s novel of the U.S. Civil War, brought a best supporting actress Oscar for Renee Zellweger.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” was based on the first in a series of novels about the adventures of Botswanan private eye Precious Ramotswe. HBO recently commissioned a 13-part TV series.
Minghella is survived by his wife, his actor-son Max Minghella and his daughter Hannah, who recently was named president of production at Sony Pictures Animation.