Thursday, September 18, 2008

‘I Want To Make A Beautiful Film’

Minghella says: 'I want to make a beautiful film.' I think: you will. And then I think: you understand what this means to these people. The world has been unkind to Africa, and here is a chance, through you, to show the positive side of the continent, its capacity for goodness and laughter and sheer human decency. -- Alexander McCall Smith

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008)

Screenplay by Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis
Based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith
Original music by Gabriel Yared
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Jill Scott Mma Precious Ramotswe
Anika Noni Rose Mma Grace Makutsi
Lucian Msamati Mr J.L.B. Matekoni
Desmond Dube BK
Tumisho Masha Lucky Sesana
Idris Elba Charlie Gotso

I watched The English Patient again last weekend, for the first time since Anthony Minghella’s brutally unexpected death. Fortunately, I also had something else to create a sense of equilibrium in my head after the devastating, sweeping-the-ground-from-beneath-your-feet exquisiteness of The English Patient: The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Minghella’s -- it breaks the heart into pieces to have to say it -- Anthony Minghella’s last film. I survived almost without tears until the very end, when I saw the dedication to Minghella, and then spent the next several minutes bawling away like a four-year-old on a school playground who’s just skinned her knee and knows no better than to cry, thinking that tears will make it all better. There are so many things about Agency that make it groundbreaking, not least the fact that it is the first film to be shot entirely in Botswana. Small cultural details are lovingly captured and presented in vintage Minghella style, with no mediating filters between the audience and the authenticity of the setting. As always, music plays an intrinsic role in making the contexts of the film absolutely genuine, and I won’t even try to comment on Gabriel Yared’s genius, at the wonderfully integrated rhythms that perfectly complement the energetic ventures of detective Mma Ramotswe and her friends (and foes).

Minghella reins in his penchant for heady landscapes in this one to focus on macrocosmic views of Botswana and its people, probably since the film was made for television. Nevertheless, there are some gorgeous landscape views of Mma Ramotswe driving her van all over the Botswana countryside. Like the Madonna del Mare ceremony in The Talented Mr Ripley, the funeral of Mma Ramotswe’s father at the beginning of the film is a fine example of how Minghella’s vision can show his viewers aspects of cultural life that are blatantly larger than the contexts of the stories he tells. The freshly dug grave, the songs sung by the mourners, Precious’ unashamed tears, and the sunny, dusty environs of the funeral procession all recalled with unerring accuracy my memories of my grandparents’ funerals, and I was relieved that the moment passed early enough in the film for me to be able to swallow the taste of the past in my mouth and focus on the story.

Not that one needs too much of an effort to focus on any story when Anthony Minghella is the storyteller. Mma Precious Ramotswe is so beautiful that I drooled over her all the way. The ‘traditionally built’ detective with her fondness for bush tea is a heartstealing character, and one can see Minghella’s entirely guileless gaze resting on her throughout the film, whether she is bantering with her barber friend, confronting her abusive ex-husband, seducing a philanderer to prove his infidelities, saving a young boy from a horrendous fate, or, in brilliantly rendered flashes, recalling the loss of her infant. Grammy-winning jazz singer Jill Scott auditioned for the role four times before she was cast, and Minghella once again demonstrates his flair for casting his characters with absolute perfection.

At first glance, this macrocosmic tale seems to be at the other end of the spectrum from the sweeping epic that is The English Patient. And yet, and yet… there are all those little details that firmly trademark both films as the incomparable works of Anthony Minghella. The way in which every character is given his or her due; every life depicted in a way that allows the writer/director to pay homage to the richness and scale of an individual life; every scene structured in a way that makes it redolent with details and sights and sounds and smells and frames that capture both intimate scenes and geographical panoramas with equally loving attention. The charmingly obscene flirtations of Kremlin Busang (David Oyelowo, also seen in The Last King of Scotland); the half-exasperated attentions that Mma Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose of Dreamgirls fame) divests on Mma Ramotswe; the gentle, shy elegance of Mr JLB Matekoni, the proprietor of Speedy Motors (Lucian Msamati); the joyous gayness of BK, the ritzy hairdresser with his ever-ready pair of scissors; and the truly sinister sensuality of Charlie Gotso (Idris Elba, whose role as Vaughan Rice in the BBC’s critically acclaimed vampire drama Ultraviolet very nearly stole the limelight from the spectacular Jack Davenport). Beneath the essentially optimistic exteriors of its wonderful ensemble cast lurk glimpses into cultural, religious and political beliefs that make up the fabric of contemporary Botswana. Like all of Minghella’s work, however, this is a story which is absolutely character driven, and which effortlessly transforms the country it is set in into one of its principal characters. The little neighbourhood outside the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, with BK’s colourful stall and the little sweet shop, becomes achingly familiar by the end of the film, and one hates to leave it.

The film premiered on the BBC on Easter Sunday, 23 March 2008, five days after Anthony Minghella’s death.

Later, Minghella draws me into Mma Ramotswe's office, now transformed by the addition of furniture. He produces a small computer on which are stored some of the sequences already filmed.
'I want to show you the scene where the teacher is reunited with his lost son,' he says. 'We did that the other day.'

Suddenly on the screen there is a group of schoolchildren singing.

Their singing falters and the teacher sees his kidnapped son, rescued by Mma Ramotswe, running across a dusty playground to embrace him. It is so beautifully filmed that I find myself struggling with emotion. I give in.

Minghella puts a hand on my shoulder. 'That's exactly what it did to me,' he says; the kindest thing for one man to say to another when one man is overcome.

--Alexander McCall Smith

[All McCall Smith quotes from the article ‘The day the No1 Ladies' Detective Agency came to life’ at]


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