Anthony Minghella tells Harriet Swain about his journey from Hull academic to Hollywood film-maker and discusses historians' charges that the hero of his new film The English Patient was a Nazi spy.
When Anthony Minghella was a child, his parents ran a cafe in the Isle of Wight and the large Italian family shared their living room with the customers. "It meant every despair, every success, every trauma was played out in public," Minghella recalls. "It was open from eight in the morning until 12 at night, 365 days of the year. It was our arena, surrounded by people all the time."
The setting might have changed but, as he leans back into the cushions of a Dorchester Hotel sofa, dressed in his director costume of dark suit, dark shirt and clipped beard, coddled by a retinue of PRs, drivers and photographers, the performance continues.
Writing and directing The English Patient, released in the United Kingdom tonight and with 12 Oscar nominations, has propelled Minghella into "the most public three months of my life". But, as his work shows, the distinction between public and personal is always a grey area - as is the split between present and past. This became all too clear within weeks of the film's opening in America, when the historical background of its main character, who is based on a real-life Hungarian explorer, came under fire.
Minghella's response to his own past was to escape from the Isle of Wight cafe. He went to Hull University to study drama and then lecture in the subject. "I spent ten years being an academic in a room on my own and found myself solaced by it and in urgent need of that quiet," he says. "I thought the life of the mind was the discovery of being educated."
He started writing while an undergraduate but, to begin with, concentrated on music. He was lucky enough to be on a course with only seven other people - all mature students except him. They had the run of a fully-equipped theatre, television and recording studios and the most up-to-date equipment. Minghella made the most of these opportunities although it was not until his final year that he did any serious writing or directing. Then he wrote a number of scenes as a way of linking a collection of his songs and performed the piece. The dramatist Alan Plater saw it and commissioned him to write for the local arts theatre. His first success was Whale Music, about the pregnancy of a girl who gives up her baby for adoption. It was written for a group of women students but was performed all over the country and taken up by TV.
Ignoring the warnings of colleagues, he quit his job and went to London to write. "I didn't set out to get to Hollywood," he says. "What I aspired to was working with theatre companies which had shown an interest in me as a playwright. In the process of writing I stopped directing completely. What has happened now is a sense of completion as I find myself involved in the same sort of interests I had as a student. The film-maker is responsible for the complete event and the work I do marshals a lot of resources which had lain dormant."
His career over the past ten years has included writing the West End hit, Made in Bangkok, the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman, and episodes of Grange Hill as well as directing Matt Dillon in Mr Wonderful. But The English Patient is on a different scale. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, it tells the story of the Hungarian explorer Count Lazlo Almasy, his doomed affair with the beautiful Katherine Clifton in prewar Cairo, and the last weeks of his life in postwar Italy.
Controversy has focused on the central character of Almasy, portrayed in the film as a romantic heterosexual but who was known in real life to be homosexual. But the most startling allegation is that, far from being a hero, the count, played in the film by Ralph Fiennes, was a Nazi collaborator and spy who threatened Britain's war operation in southern Egypt.
Relatives of those allegedly put at risk by his wartime actions have condemned the film for glorifying the character. Some critics have called it "profoundly dishonest". After the film's release in America, Elizabeth Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat stationed in Egypt during the German occupation, told the Washington Post: "Almasy was not an accidental spy responding to personal tragedy. He was a committed Nazi collaborator."
But historians are divided about whether the count, about whom little is known, was a spy or a harmless explorer who loved the desert. Dr Eva Haraszti Taylor, A. J. P. Taylor's widow and an expert in 19th-century English history, draws attention to recent work by Hungarian historians which stresses Almasy's exploits as a pilot and professional Egyptian expert rather than as a spy. In papers given to the Hungarian Geographical Museum in 1992, the academic Joszef Kasza presents him as an intrepid flyer whose first passion was aircraft. And Gyula Germanus, a professor at the Eastern Academy, helped rescue Almasy from accusations of spying by emphasising that he worked for field marshall Rommel as an expert on Egypt rather than a Nazi sympathiser.
Minghella himself is torn between annoyance at the controversy, which never arose when Ondaatje's book was published, and interest in the issues it raises. "I don't want to duck the historical issue because I'm so interested in history," he says. "My obligation in this film was to dramatise a piece of fiction. I was making a film from a novel. I wasn't producing a history lesson. But this is a false position because I was so concerned with talking about the way history is made.
"I wanted to talk about how history is fashioned by correspondences between individuals. It isn't something that goes on somewhere else. It is the sum of all those exchanges we are contributing to, willy nilly.
"At particular points in time, the membrane between these activities is particularly thin and war and impending war is a time without cartilage. It is interesting to see how explorers in the desert can have ramifications on history. A man who is self-serving can betray his friends and be responsible for endangering whole crowds of people." He argues that the moral scheme of the film is deliberately open, inviting the audience to complete it themselves. "Almasy is no hero," he says. "He's burned literally by what he does. Everyone around him is harmed because of what happens. It's a fairly cruel picture."
Paul Addison, director of the centre for second world war studies at Edinburgh, says he has no objection to historical licence so long as film-makers get "the spirit of the times and the people". But problems arise if real figures are distorted too far. "If someone who was known to have been a fascist is presented in an anodyne fashion then it is monkeying around in an unacceptable way," he says. "Where things are of present relevance I think there are responsibilities for the film-maker."
There is an irony in all this for Minghella, in whose work the past is a constant theme - from his early play Three Planks and a Passion about the medieval mystery cycles to Truly, Madly, Deeply, when Juliet Stevenson's character becomes so obsessed with her dead husband she summons his ghost.
Minghella refuses to draw a line between present and past influences, just as he refuses to give particular weight to any one experience. Directing stars like Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas is no different from working with students, he says, and his time at Hull gave him a love for actors which has never left him. "You always imagine that there is going to be an elite that you aren't with," he says. "But you find the oddest and most important people at all periods of your life. I was at university with some remarkable minds and talented colleagues and students and I have been working with some remarkable minds in film."
This means that while revelling in his all-round role as film-maker, he depends heavily on the other people involved in a production. "I need some of the circus of film-making," he says. "I enjoy the noise and collaboration of it as much as I have come to love being by myself. The happy demand of film-making, if you are a writer and director, is a rhythm of life which includes a period of sitting by yourself in a room and periods of uproar."