TRULY MADLY DEEPLY (1991)
Synopsis: Nina Mitchell (Juliet Stevenson) describes to her psychiatrist (Jenny Howe) her relationship with her partner, Jamie (Alan Rickman); how he is always there, watching out for her, advising her, sometimes admonishing her; the conversations they hold. The psychiatrist interrupts Nina’s puzzled reflection on Jamie’s new habit of speaking in Spanish to ask her gently how long it has been since he died…? When Nina arrives at the language agency where she works as an interpreter, her boss, Sandy (Bill Paterson), tries to find a tactful way of expressing his concern for her, his fear that since Jamie’s death, she has “gone underground”. Nina immediately withdraws into herself, and leaves in tears. That evening, Nina’s disaster area of a flat is invaded by Polish immigrant Titus (Christopher Rozycki), the well-meaning but overbearing builder who is in charge of her renovations. Nina tries to talk to him about her problem with rats, and with kitchen cupboards that won’t stay shut, but Titus responds with a eulogy of Poland and a declaration of love. Nina gently turns him out. The next morning, Sandy drops in with some work for Nina, and also with a postcard from his son, who is being raised in Spain by his mother, which he needs her to read to him. Later, as Nina does laundry, Sandy holds a brief conclave with Titus, George (David Ryall), the council exterminator, and Keith (Keith Bartlett), the plumber, all of whom speak worriedly of Nina’s state of mind. Sandy speaks bitterly of the tragedy and waste of Jamie’s death, which was due to complications following a trivial illness. In her next session with her psychiatrist, Nina reveals that she has been experiencing blackouts; that she suddenly “comes to” to find that hours have passed, and that she has been crying uncontrollably without even realising it. She also confesses an overwhelming feeling of anger directed at almost everyone – but most of all at Jamie, for having left her. Nina is visited by her sister, Claire (Deborah Findlay), and her nephew, Harry (Ian Hawkes). Claire reveals that Harry has been taking music lessons, and tentatively asks whether he might borrow Jamie’s cello? Nina reacts with a mixture of shock and anger, accusing Claire of an unforgivable insensitivity. When her visitors have gone, Nina sits holding Jamie’s cello in her arms, then moves to the piano, recalling the days when she and Jamie would play duets together. The sound of a cello drifts softly through the apartment, and Nina turns to find Jamie standing behind her….
Comments: It is ironic, really, that writer-director Anthony Minghella is best known for his big-budget, Oscar-bait productions like The English Patient and Cold Mountain, because for all that those films tend to be classified as “sweeping romances”, they do not, in my opinion, display one-tenth of the understanding of, and compassion for, the human condition and the human heart as may be found in the tiny, intimate, shot-for-TV drama with which Minghella made his directorial debut, Truly Madly Deeply. Re-watching this film again, and touched by it as always, I was struck by what a singular little entity it really is. Just how awkward a “sell” Truly Madly Deeply must have been for its distributors is made abundantly clear by a quick survey of the production’s poster art, the bulk of which is torn between trying to pass the film off as your standard love triangle, and trying to sell it as the British version of Ghost. (In this last respect, the Japanese poster is quite laughably awful, simply swapping Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman for Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, and substituting a keyboard for a potter’s wheel. Even the poster that I eventually chose as the least inappropriate has Stevenson tarted up in a way that she never is in the film itself.) People tuning in to the film on the basis of these advertising tactics are likely to be in for quite a shock. While both funny and affecting, Truly Madly Deeply is neither a romantic comedy nor a simple tear-jerker, but a heartfelt and moving study of the grieving process. There are a number of ways in which this film stands apart from much contemporary film-making, and chief amongst them is its attitude towards death. Understandably, I suppose, death – or rather, DEATH – is something that most people don’t care to be confronted by when they go looking for entertainment. Still, the number of films that treat the end of a human life as nothing more than the opportunity for an alleged witticism is fairly disturbing; while even those films that handle such issues seriously tend to skip over certain parts of the process – like the devastation that an unexpected death can leave in its wake. Far from shying away from these realities, Truly Madly Deeply challenges the viewer with them head-on – and does so, moreover, with an admirable lack of concern with movie convention, the kind that dictates women going to bed in full make-up, or waking up with perfect hair. Similarly, “grief”, that great ravager, is usually conveyed by nothing more disfiguring than smudged mascara. Not here, however; this is the real thing. I can think of few other films, and film-makers, honest enough to depict sudden bereavement as the agonising, bewildering, infuriating thing that it truly is – and with nerve enough to show their heroine in the very extremity of her suffering: unmade-up, tear-streaked, swollen-eyed, and uncaringly wiping her snotty nose across the back of her hand – and in close-up, no less. The role of Nina Mitchell was written by Anthony Minghella for Juliet Stevenson, and Stevenson repaid the compliment by giving a performance of such emotional nakedness that there are scenes in this film almost too painful to watch.
After all this, you may be more than a tad surprised to learn that Truly Madly Deeply is ultimately a positive and even inspiring work. Despite ourselves, in the midst of death we are in life, and so it is even for the grief-stricken Nina, slowly and not particularly successfully trying to re-build her life post-Jamie, encouraged and bolstered in her attempts by the fact that she has tumbled into a safety-net consisting of the kind of good-natured, charming eccentrics that, alas, surely never existed anywhere outside of British cinema. And this is the other thing that struck me most forcibly on this viewing of Truly Madly Deeply – although perhaps this is more of a commentary upon film in general, and the kinds of films I usually prefer to watch, than upon this specific film. How many times have you heard me, and many other reviewers, for that matter, complaining that that all the characters in a given film are awful people? – selfish, mean-spirited, cruel, stupid, awful people? If you’ve suffered through this kind of thing recently, I can heartily recommend Truly Madly Deeply as an antidote: its characters, with one important exception – and I shall get to that person later on – are genuinely nice people. Kind people. Generous people. Funny people. People you’d like to hang out with. People you’d like as friends. Nina herself is one of those people; it is this that has drawn to her the small support group that we meet at the beginning of the film. In a pivotal scene, as Nina hangs out her washing, she is watched by Sandy, her boss (the ever-welcome Bill Paterson), whose blustery surface fails to hide a heart of pure marshmallow; Titus, the Polish handyman who is supposed to be helping with Nina’s renovations, but who instead divides his time between making her impassioned declarations and coddling her with borscht; Keith, the plumber – “Well, not really a plumber” – who emerges periodically from beneath Nina’s floorboards to profess his devotion to her; and George, the elderly gentleman-exterminator who at one point startles the secret-hugging Nina with a cryptic comment about talking to his late wife. (“‘And Death shall have no dominion’. We know that, you and me – hey?”) Sadly aware that their efforts to help can do no more than provide a vague sort comfort for the suffering woman, these well-wishers spend much time agreeing amongst themselves that Nina is a lovely person – and remarkably, none of this eulogising feels like an Informed Attribute©: we like Nina as much as they do; we desire her happiness in the same way. The issue is whether she will let herself be happy. A crucial moment comes during Nina’s conversation with her sister, when Claire asks whether her son can borrow Jamie’s cello. Nina’s reaction, we realise, is an overreaction; for the first time it becomes apparent that, no matter how sincere her emotions, Nina is, in a sense, feeding her own grief. It is this that puts her future in so much danger: if Nina is creating her own suffering, then no matter how her friends try, only she can put an end to it. Or, perhaps, she and one other person. It all depends on how you read the film. With the cello incident, Nina hits rock-bottom – and immediately afterwards, Jamie reappears. Just like that. Nina’s joy is as extreme as her grief, and for a time, days in fact, she gives herself up to re-experiencing the love of her life.
Like all of the best ghost stories, Truly Madly Deeply is determinedly ambiguous, never really tipping its hand as to whether Jamie (and his equally dead friends, who show up in due course) is simply the product of Nina’s disordered subconscious, or whether a swarm of musical, cinephile phantoms really has taken up residence in her flat; there is evidence in the film to support whichever theory you favour. However, before long it becomes apparent that whatever the explanation for Jamie’s return, he is there with a very specific purpose, namely, to force Nina out from the shadows of the valley of death, and back into the land of the living. For three full days after Jamie’s return, Nina remains within her flat, ignoring the doorbell and the phone and living wholly in the past; but then her commitments begin to call her, and she must pick up the threads of her life in the present. Inevitably, her two lives begin to pull against each other – and before long, Nina finds herself at the crossroads. If there is a serious misstep in Truly Madly Deeply, it is the rather heavy-handed way that a subplot about the treatment of immigrants in Britain is thrust into the central narrative. However, clumsily executed as this is, it does serve a couple of important purposes. For one thing, it gives us our first real chance to see the other side of Nina – Nina the fighter, Nina the social crusader – when she unhesitatingly tackles the film’s single unpleasant person, a café owner who has been exploiting immigrant labour. More importantly, it is this clash that is the catalyst for the moment that will change Nina’s life forever, her meeting with psychologist, art therapist, amateur magician and all-around nice guy, Mark DeGrunwald, who intervenes in a most unexpected way when Nina’s verbal altercation with the café owner threatens to turn violent. The attraction between the two kindred spirits is instantaneous, although Nina initially feels – or believes she feels – nothing more than friendship. Mark, however, is deeply smitten with Nina, although not surprisingly he finds her mood swings and erratic behaviour rather bewildering; and soon the question is whether Nina will sacrifice her chance for a future by clinging to her past.
The scenes of Nina’s reunion with Jamie are joyful and touching, as the two celebrate all that was best in their relationship with an impromptu concert, Jamie singing to his own playing as Nina executes an exuberant, free-form dance around the flat. (Fittingly, the music in Truly Madly Deeply is fabulous, with some glorious use of Bach. At the same time, it is the rather less classical tunes that are likely to stay with you: if you can get “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” out of your head for a week after you’ve watched this, you’ve got better control over your mental faculties than I do.) The moment that Nina has encountered Mark, however, there is a subtle but significant shift in her dealings with Jamie: the less pleasant aspects of that former relationship begin to surface. Of course, to an extent they were there all along – or so the viewer might feel, if not Nina herself. The masterstroke of Truly Madly Deeply was the casting of Alan Rickman as Jamie. Effortlessly charming as always, Rickman makes Nina’s passionate love for Jamie perfectly understandable, while at the same time making clear to the viewer what Nina is only just beginning to realise – or perhaps, to admit to herself: that Jamie was, in many ways, a selfish, self-absorbed prat, intent upon having his own way in everything and who, possibly unconsciously, forced the otherwise spirited Nina into an unnaturally submissive role. No relationship is perfect, of course, and this one certainly was not; we see how far Nina has succumbed to the temptation of idealisation. Even before things go “wrong”, there are signs of Jamie’s lack of consideration for his partner. The least intangible of spirits, Jamie has no sooner reappeared than he is complaining about the temperature in the flat and criticising Nina’s living arrangements. When Nina prepares, at length, to return to work, she enters her sitting-room to find that Jamie has rearranged her furniture; he follows this up with a grouchy observation that certain presents that he gave to her are nowhere in evidence. Later, still suffering from the cold (well – he is dead), Jamie drapes his chilly frame over Nina’s warm body, and then – ah, the joys of domesticity! – sneezes all over the back of her neck.
As Nina’s relationship with Mark deepens, albeit in fits and starts, the friction between herself and Jamie increases – not least because of the continual presence in the flat of Jamie’s incorporeal friends, who hold full-scale concerts with him, take over the VCR (keeping Nina busy running back and forth to the video store – “They didn’t have I Vitelloni, but I got you Pinocchio and Forget Venice”), and move the furniture under Jamie’s direction – this last a demonstration of Jamie’s automatic imposition of his own taste upon Nina, something that she is no longer prepared to tolerate from him. There is a painfully authentic moment in the late stages of the film when Nina speaks haltingly of her own cherished possessions, of all the things that she put away when Jamie moved into her life and her home, “because you disapproved, or laughed at them”. It is not only Nina’s taste that Jamie disapproves, but her life in general. As the film progresses, the ramshackle flat into which Nina has moved following Jamie’s death assumes an extraordinary significance. In spite of the continual chorus of criticism that the dilapidated establishment attracts – and in fairness, Jamie is hardly alone in expressing such criticism – Nina clings to it stubbornly, trying to pull it together and dreaming of what it could be. The flat is, in fact, entirely symbolic of Nina’s own life, broken down, disordered and chaotic at the outset, but full of promise, if only she can make it happen. “It could be beautiful,” she says wistfully, and she is speaking no less of her own future than she is of the place in which she has chosen to live it. Events reach crisis point when Nina is called to the bedside of a friend who has gone into labour. Returning home after the birth, exhausted, overwrought, and full of an emotion that she is not ready to deal with, Nina finds Jamie and his friends disposing of her tattered but much-loved living-room rug, and finally she explodes, throwing the band of spectral invaders out of her flat. “I’d forgotten you could be like this,” Jamie remarks, deliberately provocative, and the inevitable row follows. Later, aghast at how far the two of them have travelled from their blissful reunion, and recognising for the first time how rose-tinted are the glasses with which she has been viewing the past, Nina exclaims, “Was it like this before? Were we like this?” A rambling speech follows, in which Nina speaks almost involuntarily of the things that she does not have and, as things are, will never have: love; a relationship; children; life. Even as she says these things, she comes to the realisation that Jamie’s death has forced her, perhaps for the first time, to take charge of her own life and to stand on her own two feet – and that she likes it; she likes being independent. Free from the voluntary subjugation of her personality that went with her love for Jamie, Nina is ready to build a new future for herself – if she can bring herself to do it.
Truly Madly Deeply is, as I have said, a compassionate film, and never more so than in its tender examination of the guilt that comes with survival. It can be desperately difficult, of course, to go on after a bereavement, when even simple happiness feels like a form of betrayal of the dead; when a new relationship, a new love, is the ultimate disloyalty. Dealing with these things is not easy, and this film acknowledges as much – while also insisting upon the right of the living to be happy; and that, while memory lives, there can be no betrayal. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Nina asks Jamie to describe to her their first night together; a night spent even as their first reunion night was, in music and song and dance – and love. “I longed for you,” Nina tells Jamie in an aching voice, and while, as ever, there is no doubt of her sincerity, we also note the use of the past tense. During the final section of this film, “Do you want me to go?” becomes Jamie’s litany. Although Nina knows that it is time to move on, she cannot make herself speak the words that will send Jamie permanently from her life; and so Jamie must fulfil his purpose by doing it for her, which he does by quoting Pablo Neruda’s beautiful poem “Dead Woman” in Spanish and asking her to translate it for him, thus literally putting the words of his own dismissal into her mouth.
(If you, beloved/My love/If you have died/All the leaves will fall on my breast/It will rain on my soul night and day/The snow will burn my heart/My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping/But/I shall stay alive….)
The three central performances in Truly Madly Deeply – those of Stevenson and Rickman, and of Michael Maloney as Mark (yes, that’s right: she has to choose between Alan Rickman and Michael Maloney – poor thing) – are simply exemplary, while those of the supporting players are equally fine. This is a film fated to stand or fall according to the audience’s reaction to its central triangle, and thanks to its casting, the issue was never in doubt. While taking care never to undermine the scenes of Nina’s grief, which form the emotional basis of its story, the screenplay of Truly Madly Deeply is full of humour, with each of the three main characters given to delicious throwaway lines that you just might find yourself quoting. Personally, I’ve adopted Nina’s response to her sister’s reaction to the revelation that, amongst its other delights, the flat has a rodent problem. “Nina! How can you have rats?” demands the disgusted Claire. “It’s a personality defect,” explains Nina with deceptive meekness. But there’s also Mark’s description of a past relationship (“She left me for a Theology student. I don’t believe in God.”), and of the daughter produced by that brief liaison (“She calls me ‘Mark DeGrunwald’ and the vicar ‘Daddy’!”), as well as the hilariously anticlimactic conclusion to Jamie’s earnest musing on the tragic tendency of human beings to waste their capacity for love: “I blame the Government!” (Well, this was made in the John Major era.) Truly Madly Deeply also features an unusual and rather appealing picture of the afterlife, conjuring up a vision of a place where everyone finally has time to do all those things they somehow never got around to in life – for instance, as in Jamie’s case, learning Spanish; or being able to watch just as many films as you like. (Time enough at last, indeed. As someone who has accumulated more films than she could plow her way through in two lifetimes, this last suggestion is singularly comforting.) Nevertheless, Truly Madly Deeply does finally shy away from the deeper implications of its central situation: when Nina asks Jamie whether there’s a heaven, he responds only with a doubtful, “I don’t think so”; and similarly, her tentative inquiry as to whether dying hurts provokes a semi-facetious, “Dying’s all right, it was the general anaesthetic I didn’t like.” Still, this reticence is understandable. For all that it deals with The Big Issues, not to mention spectral visitations, Truly Madly Deeply is a film that remains very much grounded in day to day reality, and enjoyably so. It is full of moments that will make you either flinch or grin with simple recognition, while at the same time being rich in quirky touches that have an unexpected impact. (Who would have imagined, for example, that the sight of a fair-sized brown rat scuttling across a counter-top could carry such an emotional charge?) For a film so centred upon the fact of death, and upon the process of grieving, Truly Madly Deeply is, in the end, a marvellously life-affirming work; a comforting reminder of the truth of Albert Camus’s famous dictum that happiness, too, is inevitable.
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