Director/Screenwriter: Anthony Minghella
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Like the rest of the world, I got the news today that Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella had died at the age of 54 of a cerebral hemorrhage. This highly honored director had a relatively small, but significant, body of work behind him. I remember a film buff I knew saying that his The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) was the most perfect film he had ever seen. Arguable, of course, but that film not only was superbly wrought, but also marked Matt Damon with his defining screen persona.
Mr. Minghella had a big impression on me as well. I was in London the year his first feature directing effort appeared in theatres. I read the reviews of Truly Madly Deeply and tried to persuade my then-husband to come see it with me. Feigning illness, he passed. Fearing the London streets at night—a fatal stabbing had just occurred at a festival in Notting Hill, not far from our hotel—I reluctantly skipped the show. Several years later, I saw a television listing for the film. I couldn’t wait to watch it, and taped it for future re-viewings. I’ve seen it more than once, but not recently. Still, so many of the features of that film are so indelibly marked in my brain that I feel pretty confident about reviewing it mainly from distant memory.
Nina (Juliet Stephenson) works in social services, helping mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants transition to life in England. She is the recent owner of a house that has a rat infestation. She plays the piano at a fairly high level. And she is grieving very, very deeply the loss of the love of her life—Jamie (Alan Rickman), a cellist who died suddenly of a massive internal infection that they both thought was just a simple sore throat. Nina isn’t coping very well. She looks shattered most of the time, and her coworkers are worried about her. She reassures them that she is fine while spurning their offers of help. When Jamie’s sister comes by to claim his cello for her child’s use, Nina wails aggressively, “It’s all I have left of him.” She collapses to the floor, hugging the instrument close.
Home alone one night, she plays the piano, remembering the duets she and Jamie used to enjoy. She senses Jamie—her longing, it must be. When she looks around, Jamie is there in the room. Disoriented, feeling joyful and psychotic at the same time, Nina challenges him. She pushes him in the chest. She does it again. Yes, it’s true, Jamie is back! He talks about the night they first made love. “I was trembling,” says Nina, conveying just how intense their connection had been.
The pair reminisce in the shorthand all couples have and recreate a familiar word contest they used to play:
Nina: I love you.
Jamie: I love you.
Nina: I really love you.
Jamie: I really, truly love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, deeply love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately, remarkably love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately, remarkably, umm… deliciously love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, passionately, remarkably, deliciously… juicily love you.
Nina: Deeply! Deeply! You passed on deeply, which was your word, which means you couldn’t have meant it! So you’re a fraud, that’s it!
Of course, Jamie isn’t exactly back, even though he is a solid entity. He is indeed a spirit. He’s cold all the time. When he climbs into bed with Nina, she must pile blankets on top to keep him warm. But she’s overjoyed that he’s around, though she can tell no one about why her mood has suddenly improved. As an added bonus, the rats vacate her property, scared off by the ghost.
Gradually, however, Jamie’s presence becomes problematic. He starts inviting his friends from the afterlife to move into Nina’s house. To make more room for them, he starts moving her furniture and rolling up her carpets. The spirits like to watch movies all day and night and commandeer her VCR. They spend most of their time arguing about movies (including Fitzcarraldo!), and Nina starts to feel put upon and left out. When Jamie questions whether she wants them there, she clings to him and insists she wants him with her always.
A man named Mark (Michael Maloney) has spied Nina in a coffee shop they both frequent. One day, he gets up the nerve to approach her. She puts him off initially, but he is persistent. She tries to brush him off on a Thames-side walkway, but he hops on one leg next to her telling her as many essentials about himself as he can. He forces her to do the same. Yes, he’s got her attention. She moves toward him and away from him so many times, however, that he finally concludes that she must be living with someone. At this moment, Nina finally seems to reach out. She says, “I loved someone very much. Very much. But he died.” She breaks down but continues to reach out.
Back at home, Nina has to break the news to Jamie. He realizes that he and his friends have to go. We are reminded of something he said to her when he first came back: “Thank you … for missing me.” In the morning, Nina finds a rat. She calls Jamie’s sister and gives her the cello. Later, she also agrees to go home with Mark. They are speeding toward his flat when she yells, “Stop the car!” She jumps out, with an impatient to bursting Mark fuming in the driver’s seat, waiting for her. After a few moments, she gets back in, holds her hand up, and says “Toothbrush.” Their mutual smiles are the crown on the movie.
This film introduced me to the powerful talent of Juliet Stephenson and the alluring sexiness of Alan Rickman. Stephenson commits so completely to this role that it is actually painful to watch her. The supporting cast is just as human as she is, projecting concern, exasperation, and the “come on, snap out of it” impatience that surround many grieving people. We can understand how losing one’s soul mate in the prime of life would be more devastating than other losses and how hard it would be to even get up in the morning and shower. With the clever ghost story, we also learn that letting grief take over can make you a stranger in your own life.
The strong script by Minghella was helped mightily by his strong direction. I’m sad we’ll never get another film from this talented writer/director, but I will truly, madly, deeply love this film forever.