‘Breaking’ talent

John Schlesinger Directing Award: Adaptation maestro Anthony Minghella returns to original screenwriting

After re-creating WWII Africa, midcentury European high society and Civil War America, Anthony Minghella’s latest project, “Breaking and Entering,” marks a break from a decade of epic literary adaptations and a return to original, more personal storytelling.

“Part of my growing anxiety as I was working on ‘Cold Mountain’ was that so much time had passed since I’d last written an original screenplay that perhaps I’d never be able to do it,” he says. “I think there’s a slight tension or dialectic between my instincts as a writer and my instincts as a director. As a writer, I’m a kind of miniaturist. If there was an analogy of being an artist, I would do tiny sketches. My interest in people is in tiny aspects of behavior, but as a filmmaker, I’m interested in the hugest canvases imaginable.”

After “Truly Madly Deeply,” Minghella says he was “distracted” making big historical films, but never lost his interest in one day returning to the relative intimacy of his debut. Sydney Pollack, who had invited the Oscar-winning “English Patient” director to become his producing partner at Mirage Enterprises, encouraged the experiment.

Almost 15 years earlier, “he had an idea for a play in which a couple go to the theater and when they come home, they’ve been burglarized, but when they look through the house to see what they’ve lost, they’ve found that the thieves have added things,” says Pollack. “He got struck by this idea that intrusions and breaking are sometimes starting points for rebuilding, that they can be catalysts for something positive.”

While Minghella was away shooting “Cold Mountain,” someone broke into Mirage’s London offices, rekindling his earlier story idea. The incident introduced him to the city’s experimental conciliation hearings, in which juvenile criminals could ask their victims’ forgiveness in place of serving time.

Setting the story in London’s dynamic King’s Cross neighborhood, the director assembled a cast of international characters, pairing former collaborators Jude Law and Juliette Binoche with newcomers Robin Wright Penn and Vera Farmiga (he also cast “Truly Madly Deeply” star Juliet Stevenson as an in-joke).

As the site of Europe’s biggest urban renewal project, King’s Cross struck Minghella as a welcome allegory for second chances and personal growth. Minghella’s characters make mistakes — adultery, deceit, crime — but he believes in their capacity to change for the better.

“You’re right if you detect a kind of optimism,” he says. “The point of making fiction, to me anyway, is to try and advocate the kind of general compassion where we just take a beat before we pass judgment.”

That sensibility is virtually alien in Hollywood these days, where an uplifting ending often signifies studio pressure or artistic compromise. Instead, Minghella’s vision is more consistent with an earlier generation of European humanists, generous spirits such as Krzysztof Kieslowski.

“Anthony and I are both nuts about Kieslowski,” says Pollack. Together, they were instrumental in bringing one of the Polish director’s unfinished projects, “Heaven,” to the screen in 2004.

“I think Kieslowski would have made a wonderful film of this material,” says Minghella. “We’re both raised Catholics. Whether we’re lapsed, indifferent, disbelieving or dysfunctional Catholics, nonetheless, the armature and heart of what gets me up in the morning comes from a particular kind of upbringing, which thinks of fiction in moral terms.”

In addition to his film work, which includes producing Phillip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire” and David Frankel comedy “I Don’t Know How She Does It” through Mirage, Minghella challenged himself by directing opera (Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”) and writing a humorous dance piece in London. Though his next pic is likely to be an adaptation of “The Ninth Life of Louis Drax,” he doesn’t rule out another original project: “I’m trying not to get lost in somebody else’s definition of what I should do, but do the work that seems correct to me.”

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