Under-Rated Movies #11: Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990); Dir. Anthony Minghella

11. Truly, Madly, Deeply


When you hear the plot of this movie, you think immediately two things:
1. Ghost
2. Chick flick.

It is NEITHER. I cannot stress that enough. I think perhaps when people heard what it was about, they thought, “Oh, whatever, we saw Ghost – same movie.” It is NOT. This is a wrenching film, filled with humor, and memorable individuals, great writing – and it is TRULY (madly deeply) a look at grief, and the mourning process – not a faux glycerine-tears mourning process like in Ghost. It takes a stab at really looking at what it would be like to be haunted by someone you love who has died … not just metaphorically – but actually. And he’s actually there. Like she can touch him, and hang out with him, and make love to him … but he’s a ghost. So … what does this mean? She is marrying herself to death? What about the pull of the living? If she answers the call to life … will she be betraying her dead partner? Will it be like she is cheating on him?

Juliet Stevenson – a wondrous actress (mostly stage stuff) – plays Nina. (Or, I should say: she’s done a ton of movies, but she always plays quirky little character parts with only a couple of scenes – also, she pretty much sticks to English films. She kind of can’t stand Hollywood – probably because they only care about 19 year olds with stick bodies and lollipop heads. She knows that Hollywood is not the arbiter of what is GOOD – although it is obviously a very powerful force – so she doesn’t let it bother her that they do not want her. She’s said as much in interviews. Onstage she has played all of the great classical parts – including an unforgettable Nora from Doll’s House -which was filmed – I saw it – tremendous. She is a leading lady of the stage – and will be remembered thus.)

When the film opens, Nina’s boyfriend has been dead for a year, I think. His name was Jamie. He was a cellist. Nina lives in their old flat – which is falling apart – tons of problems, rats, mice, plumbing … she finds it all rather overwhelming, and all of the concerned people in her life want her to move, get a fresh start. Of course, when one is seared by grief and loss, such suggestions as “get a fresh start” are not just clueless, they are cruel. Nina cannot move. She cannot throw away his cello. There are scenes of her alone in the apartment – and although we haven’t met Jamie yet, and we did not hang out with them – we can FEEL how quiet the apartment is, and oh how we miss the sound of the cello. The cello stands in the corner. You always feel its presence.

Nina lives a double life. She is a busy social worker, helping immigrants adjust to London life – helping them learn English, finding them doctors, etc. We see her breezing in and out of the office – her co-workers are all completely memorable – really well-written individuals – Lots of humor. It is obvious, within a few exchanges, that Nina is loved. You know how when you hang out with a group of friends you are not a part of, and you can just feel how much they all love each other. It’s not in the words they say. It’s in their behavior. This is what Anthony Minghella (the director) and all of the actors capture in those office scenes. It doesn’t feel like Nina’s life starts when the film starts. Her life has been going on whether we watch it or not … we just happen to be lucky enough to get to eavesdrop. That’s VERY hard to do – to get a sense of overwhelming familiarity, the sparkle of inside jokes, the things left unsaid … All of the co-workers are, frankly, worried about Nina. She spends too much time alone. Is she healing? Is she getting better? Nina is no whiner. She is a smiley beautiful energetic woman, committed to her clients … yet there is a hole within where Jamie used to be. She is not her old self. And everyone senses the change and wonders whether it will be permanent. People glance at each other behind Nina’s back – she catches them at it and says, with a big open smile, “Guys … I’m fine. Really.”

But then there’s that empty apartment …

There’s a scene in a psychiatrist’s office – the entire thing is done in tight tight close-up on Stevenson’s face. She is feeling it. She is in a RAGE at what has been taken from her. She howls with grief. I have goosebumps just writing it. It is acting that takes your breath away. When you see what Stevenson does in this scene – it makes you realize that every other “mourning” scene you have ever watched pales in comparison. She puts every other actress who has done such a scene to shame. Because the first time I saw it – it was so real and so powerful and so PRIVATE – that’s the thing – so PRIVATE … that I felt like I almost shouldn’t be watching it. I felt like I was intruding. You never see the psychiatrist’s face … maybe briefly at the end. The psychiatrist says nothing. But we just hear Nina’s howling emptiness, her rage at the universe for taking Jamie from her, her unutterable loneliness … This is not the face she shows to anyone. This is a private moment. It makes you wonder why Juliet Stevenson is not more well known. She is to London theatre-goers – her career is one an actress dreams of … but her availability, her openness, her fearlessness in that one scene rivals any of the great actresses with names we all know. She is truly magnificent.

And then one night, wandering around her empty quiet flat … she sits down and starts to play the piano. We don’t know why it is important, but we know that it is. We know that somehow the piano has something to do with Jamie. She plays … oh God, people, please see this movie! – as she plays, she starts to laugh suddenly, sometimes she starts to weep … she is having a full-blown experience, almost like she feels he is with her again. If I had to compare the level of her spontanaeity with any other actors – her level of commitment to emotional truth – it would be Brando. She’s that good. As she plays the piano, the camera does a slow slow pan around her – and as the camera pans – we see a figure in the background, sitting by his cello. We can’t see his face, he is in a black overcoat … and suddenly … he starts to play with her. The long slow notes of the cello blend with the piano … she catches her breath … She keeps playing … She can’t tell, though: Is it real? Have I finally gone mad? Am I just remembering the cello, or is it really there?? Anyone who has ever missed someone so badly that your heart aches up out of your chest will sympathize with her confusion. He is still there – this is not a trick of the camera – he is obviously just there, in the material world, playing the cello …

Finally she stops playing, turns, and sees him. (It’s Alan Rickman, by the way, in one of his best roles ever.) For a long time nothing happens. You feel her even stop breathing. She is truly trying to comprehend the moment. Is that … you? Is that … could it be …

What follows next is a reunion moment (part of which is showed in the picture above) which is so searingly moving and beautiful and awful that your heart aches for all of the people in the world who have yearned for such a moment. To touch someone again … to smell them in … to feel their lips … to touch their skin … to have them not be just a memory … something you cannot grasp … but REAL. In the end, sometimes, it is the sensoral details that you miss the most. The twisted grin of the beloved, the way their fingernails were, how they kissed, how they tasted … It is intoxicating once it is gone.

The difference between this and Ghost (and I actually enjoyed Ghost) is that it REALLY entertains what it would be like. How Juliet Stevenson treats him in those beginning moments of his return seems exactly what one would do. It is not dramatic in an ACTOR-ly sense – which I felt was what Demi Moore did in Ghost. She cried beautifully, she pouted her lips, she seemed sad … but did she really feel what it would ACTUALLY be like?? Juliet Stevenson does. She breathes him in, she laughs in this fierce frightening way – like she is taking a ferocious bite out of life – she clutches at his face, feeling his skin … Guys. This is acting as good as it gets.

So anyway. He’s back! Jamie is back! Who knows why … even he doesn’t know why. He’s not strictly alive … he’s always freezing cold, he has to walk around in blankets (which ends up being so grimly humorous – Juliet Stevenson comes home from a busy day at work in the sunlit real world, to find her grumpy dead boyfriend slouching around the house, draped in blankets like a squaw.) – but he can kiss, talk, laugh, open doors, make a cup of tea, etc. There is no weird science here. He is THERE, but he isn’t there.

Nina immediately has a resurrection of her spirits (her friends are all completely baffled at the change). He’s back!! She can’t tell anyone, of course … but her life is back. She is no longer sad. She is over the moon. There are some great great scenes of the two of them hanging out in the apartment – making love, and joking around, and singing stupid songs they used to love to sing – making each other laugh. Alan Rickman is just so goldurn wonderful. He’s wry, he’s humorous, he’s pained … He looks at her at one point, and of course now she is glowing and happy because he’s back … but he says to her, in that Alan Rickman way (nobody draws out a line like he does): “Thank you … for missing me.” Oh, it’s so moving. To realize, after you are dead, just how much you were loved.

But then, of course, as time goes on … things get a bit more complicated.

First of all, Jamie has brought back a bunch of dead friends from the underworld. Now one of the amusing and really special thing about this film is that when people come back from the dead – instead of haunting subway stations, or being spooky in dark corners – like most other films – these people just want to do what they did when they were alive. These ghosts – all men – all in black trenchcoats, all freezing as well – just want to watch all their favorite old movies. They give Nina lists of movies they want to see again. There’s a VERY funny scene when Nina, wiped out after her long day, lies in the bathtub, relaxing. Jamie comes in to say something – maybe to tell her they’re making popcorn or something because “High Noon” is about to come on. Nina, submerged in the tub, looks up and says, flatly, “I can’t believe I have a bunch of dead people watching videos in my living room.” hahaha But it’s so well done – because – well, maybe it’s just me, as a movie-watcher – but I just thought that was such a funny choice. If I got to come back from the dead, wouldn’t I want to see Only Angels Have Wings or Notorious or Center Stage just one more time??

It’s a wonderful script. So there are shots of Nina in the kitchen, making dinner – and you can hear all of these angry voices in the other room arguing about Fitzcarraldo. IT’S HYSTERICAL.

As Nina comes back out of her grief – of course other men start to take notice. There’s a melancholy Russian who works in her office who is really quite lovesick about her. He continuously says to her in his thick Russian accent, “Please. Fly to Paris with me. Please make love with me.” Most of the offers she doesn’t take seriously – why should she? Jamie’s back! But then … there’s one man she meets … randomly …

Now the beautiful thing about the casting of this man is that he is not some Johnny Depp stud. This is a film inhabited by real people. He is balding, looks a bit gaunt – like Jonathan Pryce … and he just really really likes her. He has no idea that she has lost the love of her life … and he also no idea that a ghost is basically skulking around her apartment, playing his cello and waiting for her to come home.

Nina and this man have a conversation in the park … and she starts to get very itchy, sort of deflecting his interest in her … He’s asking questions (but all in that very offhanded British way) and she’s putting him off … and finally he says, “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do. I will go from here to that wall over there – hopping on one foot – and I will tell you my entire life story in that time.” She is obviously like, “Uhm … you’re insane …” but he’s so sweet and funny that she says Okay. She walks with him as he hops along like a maniac, giving her bullet points of his life because he doesn’t have much time. (This would be a great tactic on a date, actually. Get that shit out of the way!) So he’s hopping, and saying, “Nervous breakdown at 20! Architectural degree at 25! My father hates me! I love coffee! I live by myself!” etc. It’s hysterical. You love him. I mean, by this point in the film – you are so in love with Alan Rickman (because she is) that you resist this charming self-effacing sweet man. It’s just how Juliet Stevenson feels. Her ghost-Jamie is so much more real to her. She can’t bear to think of giving him up. Then he makes HER do it … so she hops along, laughing at herself, giving him bullet points …

It’s just a lovely lovely scene. You realize, for the 800th time, how few good scripts there are out there.

So how the whole thing works out you’ll just have to see for yourself – but honestly – I cannot recommend this movie higher than I do.

It’s a glorious cathartic and funny experience – and what it makes you feel like doing is appreciate every moment you have with the people you love. It makes you want to savor every second and not forget anything. That is a true gift that a film can give.

And the two lead actors are virtuosos, doing an extended duet.

See it.

(Note: this post has been edited due to my forgetting a very important plot-point!)

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17 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #11: Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990); Dir. Anthony Minghella

  1. Ken says:

    That’s quite a description. The High Noon and Fitzcarraldo scenes sound a little like a riff on Field of Dreams.

  2. red says:

    Ken – yeah, there is a similarity, you’re so right! I love how the dead ballplayers are not sentimentalized … They are still just dumb jocks who want to play ball. It’s so refreshing!!

  3. Another Sheila says:

    God … THANK YOU for writing about this movie!!!!!! I have seen it … I don’t know, maybe 15 times? Maybe more? It is one of the best, best, best movies ever. Just thinking about it makes my heart hurt. Every scene, every moment is so familiar to me. I feel like I’ve lived in that house, worked in that office, walked those streets. The scene where she’s holding his cello and weeping? Jesus. You actually assume her grief when you watch this movie. You’re not merely observing it, you are experiencing it to the core of your being. And then of course, he comes back and you feel all of that elation and everything. And then the new guy. And the Russian. Ohhhh, what a gem. I think of this movie and it’s like I want to take the whole thing in my arms and squeeze it and thank it for existng.

    You’re right … it’s all done so incredibly well. These people are real in a way people in films almost never are. GOD! I love this movie. You really do want to scream from the mountaintops, “SEEEEEE THIIIIIISSSS!!!” And I’m so glad you are screaming it from your particular mountaintop!!

    Did you see her in “The Politician’s Wife”? Sooo good. And Alan Rickman – I love him. You could get lost forever in that incredible voice. He was particularly dreamy as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Marianne — what was she thinking that whole time with that ding dong Willoughby?

  4. red says:

    Yay!! Another fan! I just adore this film – she’s so so good.

    And Alan Rickman is incredible – I saw him on Broadway in Private Lives – he is even more amazing on stage. Those Brits, man, they know how to do it. He was so so funny, and dry, and biting – but then, also passionate. A wonderful piece of acting!

    I loved him in Sense & Sensibility – what a kind kind man.

    The moment outside the sick room when Emma Thompson comes out and he’s standing there, helpless – he says, “Give me something to do or I shall go mad.”

    You want to weep – he’s so restrained, but you can see how much he’s feeling. She says, “I am sure she would feel better if her mother were here.”

    You can see the look dawn on his face – he whispers, “Of course …” and off he runs!! He’s a hero!

  5. Sal says:

    Umm, just for clarity’s sake – I don’t think they were married, just lovers.

    But other wise – one of my very favorites. The scene where he describes the park with the memorial to the little girl. The contractor, who understands that the dead can stick around. Her boss and his son’s postcards. Her lovely relationship with her nephew. Little gems, all.

    What a fabulous review! So glad to have found your site. Thanks to Tracey!

  6. Another Sheila says:

    The Brits — I know. Why are they so often so good? I mean, from an actual actor’s point of view. Is it just a different kind of training? Do they more often come from the stage? A different mentality? I don’t mean to be anti-American actors at all — obviously, there are many great ones. But … there is something different about the Brits. You see it in TV too. It’s like it’s in their blood.

    Yeah, the restraint of Rickman’s character in S&S. Again, I’m no actor. But it seems like that would be a really tough thing to play right: someone who is so extremely reserved and bound by manners and gentlemanliness and all the rest, and yet has these powerful, powerful feelings underneath. I would think it would be easy to err on one extreme or the other, being either so reserved that the inner turmoil never shows, or so obvious about it that the character becomes inauthentic. He really nails it. It’s so subtle, which is why it’s so real and powerful. The moment you recall is another one that makes my heart hurt.

  7. red says:

    Sheila –

    I think a lot of it has to do with the stage training they have over there. But I think your second paragraph is right on, too.

    You NEVER feel that Colonel Brandon lacks warmth. It’s just that he has good breeding, and holds himself together. It’s a killer combo!

  8. red says:

    Sal – I love Tracey! Thanks for visiting.

    Were they not married? I didn’t remember that!

  9. Another Sheila says:

    I believe Sal is right and they weren’t actually, technically married. I kind of recall her referring to him as her “boyfriend”. Takes nothing away from the plot, of course, but I do think that’s right.

    Slightly off topic, but on the subject of great acting … an aMAZing new theatre opened recently here in Chicago: The Gift Theatre (I think it’s http://www.thegifttheatre.org). Seriously incredible work being done there by an extraordinary ensemble. It’s TINY — just two rows of seating, maybe 40 seats altogether (it’s up on the NW side, in a little storefront that was previously a shoestore.) You don’t feel like you’re watching a play, you feel like you’re intruding on people’s private lives. Powerful. They do a lot of Irish plays and other great stuff — awesome lineup for 06/07. If you’re ever in town and looking for a great theatre experience, check it out. My husband and I saw The Clearing there a couple of months ago. It was our first time going and we were completely blown away. The Good Thief is there now, and seems to be getting rave reviews from all quarters.

    I suspect you would REALLY dig it. “Um … do you know me??” No, but what can I say? Skin care and Chicago theatre, I think of you! : )

  10. red says:

    And I also love the scenes between Juliet Stevenson and the nephew. I just think that Stevenson creates what seems to be a totally real woman, not theatrical at all – with a documentarian’s sense of real life. Love her.

    If you ever get a chance to see her Doll’s House – I know you can rent it – do it! She’s a heartbreaking Nora.

  11. red says:

    Sheila – I actually have heard a bit about the gift theatre from some of my friends in Chicago – it sounds fantastic. That’s one of the best things about that fair fair city- the amount of awesome theatre, and also the fact that you can actually have an ensemble of people – and do good work. It’s really a great place for that!

    I’ve been eyeing that microdermabrasion kit by the way … hmmmmmmmm

  12. MikeR says:

    This is one that I probably would not have sought out on my own, but will now have to see. It would require a heart much harder than mine to resist such a tender, loving description…

  13. Sal says:

    I’m the Sal from Jan 4, 2006 “Explaining America”. Loved your answers!

  14. Sal says:

    Forgive me for rambling – catching up on your fabulous site:

    a great movie kiss – Trevor Howard and Ceila Johnson in “Brief Encounter” mashed up against the wall of the train station passage. Two married proper English people in the grip of an unexpected passion.

    Screen deaths? Donald Pleasance in “The Great Escape”: “Thank you for getting me this far.”

    John Wayne in “The Cowboys”.

  15. mitch says:

    I knew you were going to get to this movie! Just knew it!

    I’m glad you can find words to describe how wonderful this movie was, because although I’ve seen it a few times since it came out, I still can’t.

  16. red says:

    mitch – I love that you knew this one was coming!!

    I have to see it again – it’s been a long time.

  17. Scotter says:

    My wife keeps browsing video stores for any Alan Rickman movie where he isn’t playing a sneering jerk, all because her first impression of him was from this movie. Other then Sense and Sensibility, there doesn’t seem to be much.