Friday, October 4, 2013


The year was 1989. Shooting schedule in place, writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) gathered his actors and production people together, and set out to make what he thought of as a romantic comedy. But when the camera rolled (they still rolled in those days), he realized very quickly, that he had written something far more complex, a film that asks you to suspend reality and immerse yourself in finely layered tale of romance and grief, passion and compassion, tom foolery and self-discovery.

In the first scenes of this 1990 British import, we meet Nina (Juliet Stevenson), a young British woman who, some time in the not-so-recent past, lost the love of her life, when he (Jamie) died during what should have been a routine expoloratory procedure associated with a sore throat. One minute he was a thriving, passionate musician, lover and companion; the next, he was gone. Forever gone.

The absurdity and finality of his death has rendered Nina nearly immobile, though she somehow manages to do what she has to do at the language agency where she works, barely interacting with coworkers and clients, neighbors, family, friends and would-be suitors, who worry that she will never get back on track. Nina, it seems, worries as well, knowing in her heart that it’s time to move on, while lacking the emotional wherewith all to do so.

By her own admission she is mad at the world, jealous of anyone who is loved, in love, or, as she puts it, "wasting love", envious of happy families, and yearning for a child of her own, while remembering and grieving for life as it was, and all that went with it.

She tells her therapist that she still feels Jamie's presence; the sound of his cello accompanying her as she plays the piano, his voice strong and clear, reminding her to lock the back door, wait for a traffic light to turn green or answer the phone. While these things bring her some comfort, they ultimately offer little relief.

And then, one day, while playing a classical piece on the piano in her dimly-lit living room, something magical happens. Kudos to cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (The English Patient, Sliding Doors), as he guides us through the great reveal, slowly panning from Nina’s fingers as they make their across the keys, pulling out just enough to see a shadowed figure playing a shadowed cello just behind her, until we, like Nina, realize that what she is hearing and feeling and seeing is not just wishful thinking or a figment of her imagination, but Jamie, in the flesh, playing the cello that only moments before had been sitting idly in the corner of the room.

While the how or why of his return are  never fully explored, it appears that he was given the chance to return to earth and Nina’s apartment, looking not like a ghost or see-thorugh illusion, but the living breathing cellist he was pre-op. And yet we know that he is what he is, and not what he was.

Their reunion is a wonderfully crafted mixture of awe and passion: a joyful celebration of everything they were, and are and hope to be. They talk and love and dance and sing. They are silly and happy, and, in wonderful exchange of words, truly, madly and deeply in love.

Of course, there is a catch. Jamie is, after all, dead. While family and friends are delighted at the overnight change in Nina’s demeanor, she cannot reveal the reason behind her sudden transformation; lest they believe her to be delusional. He too must avoid being seen, his world confined to her small apartment, and wherever he was before his return. 


At first, it seems but a small price to pay, but as time passes, the realization of the so-called reality of their situation begins to take its toll. Bored, and with limited options to keep himself occupied while Nina is away, Jamie (a young and rakish Alan Rickman) starts rearranging things in the apartmentsmall things at first, but for Nina, even these minor changes are unsettling.

The real trouble – and opportunity for humor comes when, tired of being on his own for hours on end, Jamie invites some friends in from the other side to watch a few videos, share a couple of brews and make themselves comfortable a little too comfortable, for his increasingly exasperated Nina Add to this the unavoidable need to keep the place more than a wee bit warm so that Jamie and his cold-or-no-blooded friends won’t (you’ll excuse the expression) freeze to death.

And there is the more serious question of fertility, and life beyond her two-room apartment. Nina wants, needs, and longs to be a mother. Jamie, in his present state, cannot father a child; though at times he acts like one.

Finally, there is the hint of what could be, if she is willing and able to let go of the past, when she meets Mark (Michael Maloney) a living, breathing all-around good guy who appears on the horizon atdepending on how you look at it, just the rightor wrong time.

How all of this unfolds makes for one hour and forty-five minutes of great cinema, during which Nina learns a lot about herself, including where she is, what she wants, and whether her memories of what was, the reality of what is, is enough to override the possibilities before her. 

HBO is currently running a documentary called First Cousin Once Removed. The film follows poet Edward Honig’s life as he and his family deal with the slowly-escalating ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, even as his memory fails, there are moments of great clarity and wisdom. “The past is not what happened", he tells his young cinematographer cousin, “it’s what you remember happened.”

Nina could relate.

Her memories of Jamie and the way they interacted were skewed by time, loss and longing. And while she appeared to be stuck, the truth of the matter was, a part of her was moving on. Slowly, perhaps, but moving just the same.

Unlike other films I have recommended, Truly Madly Deeply is not available through Netflix, and, as the DVDs are no longer being produced, getting a hold of a copy may take some doing. Hopefully, our search will be short and sweet. Check out your local library’s collection of DVDs, second-hand DVD sites and stores, or, if you feel comfortable doing so, ask to borrow a copy from a friend. Getting a hold of this gem of a film may seem a like a lot of trouble, but I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t believe it to be well worth the effort.

A final note: Minghella passed away in 2008. Over his career he wrote, directed and/or produced many memorable movies, posthumously receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work as co-producer of The Readeranother outstanding film. One his last projects, the pilot for the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, led to a happily inventive, though all too short
run. Based on Andrew McCall Smith’s novels, it, and the episodes that followed, are well worth watching.

If you can’t findTruly, Madly Deeply, or even if you can, I hope you’ll check out these and other Minghella films. They, like the man himself, deserve to be remembered.


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