Nov 19-26 2006
Best known for his Oscar-winning epics, director Anthony Minghella worked closer to home for Breaking and Entering. He talks to Leigh Singer about immigration, Britain’s underclass and the truths hidden from us all.
Helming one historical, globe-trotting epic based on a celebrated novel, The English Patient, that wins nine Academy Awards could be accidental; following up with two further lavish, award-magnet adaptations of literary heavyweights – The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain – and it’s official: you’re a fully-fledged member of the annual Miramax-sponsored Big Movie push: Oscars R Us.
It’s a perception Anthony Minghella is, unsurprisingly, quick to dispel, pointing out his more modest beginnings. “Truly, Madly, Deeply the first film I made seemed to me to be the right size for my writing,” the 52-year old filmmaker claims of his beloved, intimate debut. “I think of myself first as a writer, then as a director. Literally, my handwriting is very, very small and I think that betrays my interests as a writer. Details interest me. As a film maker, my eye is much greedier, more interested in big canvas work and I think my films are in some kind of argument all the time between those two scales: bits of human behaviour and these broader sweeps of history.”
It’s a typically erudite, sincere and thought-out answer to an enquiry about the shift involved in Minghella’s latest film, Breaking and Entering, his first contemporary-set film for some thirteen years; the first set in his adopted London hometown since Truly, Madly, Deeply; whose biggest set-piece is probably a young kid outrunning a middle-aged man between King’s Cross and Russell Square.
“I remembered very vividly being in Romania working on Cold Mountain,” he recollects, “thinking that I had to summon the courage in a way to make a film that didn’t have the support of a novel, but was returning to talk about things I had some direct relationship to. I thought it would be better to come home and make a movie about the couple of the pages of the A-Z I live in, only to discover I knew really very little about those pages. I mean both literally and also, I suppose, metaphorically. It’s such a surprise how much of the city’s hidden from us.”
Filtered through a burglary at an architect firm by a young Bosnian street gang, the architect-turned-detective Will (Jude Law) becomes involved with the young thief’s mother, poor seamstress Amira (Juliette Binoche), at the expense of his own relationship with Liv (Robin Wright Penn) and her troubled teenage daughter. Pilfering from the experience of a spate of break-ins at his own offices, Minghella’s original screenplay may be smaller-scale than recent efforts but still confronts some of the growing concerns of our multi-cultural times: the clash of social, economic and cultural tensions between immigrant and indigenous populations.
By opting to set up his workplace within the bubbling ethnic cauldron of King’s Cross, architect Will is brutally yanked from his cosseted, leafy North London existence. Amira and her son Miro (newcomer Rafi Gavron), as well as garrulous Ukrainian prostitute Oana (Vera Farmiga from Scorsese’s The Departed) represent, in Minghella’s words, “an underclass”, at best ignored, at worst exploited, yet in a way strangely indispensable.
“You know, we’re sitting in the Dorchester,” he says, gesturing around our ludicrously plush hotel surroundings, “We don’t know how our water got upstairs, who made our coffee… It almost certainly wasn’t somebody English. It was probably somebody from another country working in the service industry here. It’s an unrepresented class and it’s one we depend on.”
Given his own family’s journey from Italy to the Isle of Wight (where Minghella Ice-Cream, founded by his parents Edward and Gloria, is still a local delicacy), the immigrant experience is a very personal one. “I’m a very big advocate of the welcome that London has given me and everybody else who’s settled here,” he maintains. “Having said that, it would be completely disingenuous to say that it’s without problems. We’re not fully integrated and that’s a failing of both those who already are here living in the city and those who arrive. If you don’t want to live in London then don’t live here. Don’t come to England to hate the English. Let’s see if we can grow some compassionate relationship with each other.”
Breaking and Entering also delves beneath the social forces around us. As Will and Liv drift apart, and he and Amira connect it’s also an up-close investigation into, as Minghella puts it, “the nature of theft. Maybe there are crimes which are less easily punished but are no less significant like the crime of emotional theft that we all have probably been guilty of.” Speaking of the boundaries of relationships, what it’s like reteaming with actors like Law and Binoche with whom he’s successfully worked in the past?
“Going back to work with Juliette wasn’t the same as doing The English Patient with her,” Minghella allows. “We’re both… our lives were changed by that movie. Jude’s life was changed by [The Talented Mr.] Ripley. When people ask me about Jude as a person, I always become disarmed only because I realise that we spend a lot of time together but we’re not intimates… we don’t hang out together but I know I’ll see him a lot in my life and have great pleasure in his company. Whereas Juliette’s much more of a family friend. What’s remarkable about both of them as actors is their level of curiosity and commitment and enthusiasm is undimmed. In many ways it’s increased.”
One could say the same of Minghella. Not just an internationally established filmmaker and artist (his opera Madame Butterfly toured the world last year), he’s also taken his tenure as Chairman of the British Film Institute very seriously. “I feel very uncomfortable being a spokesperson, as if I’m an authority on British cinema,” he sighs. I’d rather be talking about Samuel Beckett than tax credits. But you know, my wife would say you elect your life to some degree and I’ve elected this part and I can’t hide from that.” How reassuring to know someone looking at the bigger picture still has his eye on the details.
Breaking and Entering opens on November 3rd.