Very much in the mould of such earlier generation British film directors as Stephen Frears and Mike Newell, Roger Michell, who has died unexpectedly aged 65, gravitated smoothly from Cambridge University to the Royal Court theatre, where he was an assistant director to both John Osborne and Samuel Beckett. After a five-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, Michell plunged into television and film with the splendid BBC series of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). This was followed by Persuasion (1995) – one of the best ever screen adaptations (by Nick Dear) of Jane Austen, also for the BBC.
His defining moment in romcom and his passport to Hollywood was Notting Hill (1999), which trumped even Newell’s great sitcom Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Both were written by Richard Curtis, and both starred a brilliantly offhand and charmingly slapdash Hugh Grant, with the clinching bonus in the second of a delightful performance by Julia Roberts in classic tandem with Grant.
Michell, like Frears and Newell, was a big, bear-like man, with a modest and affable manner and an acute sense of his own responsibility towards the writers whose work he translated into flesh and blood, and the actors he cast so cannily. There was never any fanfare or fuss. He just got on with the job. He didn’t exactly avoid the razzmatazz and red carpets, but he certainly kept a low profile.
The son of Jillian (nee Green) and HD Michell, Roger was born in Pretoria, South Africa, where his father, a British diplomat, was on a posting. As a child, he lived abroad with his parents in Lebanon, Syria and Czechoslovakia, before boarding at Clifton college in Bristol. From there he took a degree at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and immersed himself in university drama.
With his college friend and contemporary Richard Maher, he wrote and directed a clever Raymond Chandler spoof, Private Dick, for the Edinburgh fringe in 1980 (“She gave me the kind of smile that would have made the pope loosen his neck-tie”), which came to the Whitehall theatre in London, starring Robert Powell. The duo followed with a less successful spoof, White Glove (1983), with Adrian Edmondson, in which Holmes and Watson blundered into the last scene of The Cherry Orchard. This surfaced at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
In between, he directed a fine Nick Dear play, The Catch, about Cornish fishers, in the Royal Court’s upstairs studio, before launching his RSC career with a disarmingly wacky Dear effort, The Dead Monkey, in which Frances Barber and Bruce Alexander, as a dysfunctional Californian couple, consumed their deceased pet simian at the dinner table.
As well as directing a no-nonsense 1987 Hamlet with Philip Franks, and a mischievously intelligent revival of George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple (with Simon Russell Beale resembling Mollie Sugden as a prancing fop in red tights and Rasta curls) in 1988, he forged a productive RSC relationship with the American playwright Richard Nelson.
In Some Americans Abroad (1989), Nelson had fun with a collegiate theatre party coming to worship at the shrine of Shakespeare, while Two Shakespearean Actors (1990), set in 1849 during the New York riots that accompanied William Macready’s Macbeth, taken as an act of gross cultural encroachment, was a finely tuned meditation on transatlantic rivalry and the art of acting. John Carlisle was Macready, Anton Lesser his American opposite number, Edwin Forrest, with Ciarán Hinds chipping in as the playwright-director Dion Boucicault.
Finding himself left out in the cold at the RSC when Adrian Noble succeeded Terry Hands as artistic director in 1990, Michell enrolled on a three-month BBC television director’s course, which changed his life. Apart from anything else, this enabled him to make a fine television play of one of his biggest theatre hits, Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg (1994), a beautiful, hilarious, heart-breaking comedy among a group of gay friends, each of whom had a connection with the deceased (from Aids), Reg, which opened in the Royal Court’s studio and moved triumphantly into the West End and beyond.
Even as his Hollywood career prospered, Michell kept his theatrical hand in at the National Theatre with a string of superb new productions: Mustapha Matura’s The Coup (1991) dissected the comic muddle of power-seeking after the Trinidad coup of 1970 (Norman Beaton was the jailed president); Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange (2000) was a brilliantly staged game of prophetic intellectual ping pong between Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln as doctors, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as their guinea pig-style mental health patient; in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour (2003) he worked for the first time with Anna Maxwell Martin (who became his second wife), alongside Eileen Atkins and Corin Redgrave; and Nina Raine’s Consent (2017), which was a fierce domestic comedy anatomising a distinction between law and justice on a controversial rape case.
An earlier collaboration with Raine, Tribes (2010) at the Royal Court, centred on a deaf boy’s relationship with his family and drew brilliant performances from Michelle Terry and Phoebe Waller-Bridge; the latter had also been a daffy delight as a “bright young thing” in Michell’s Almeida Theatre staging of Patrick Hamilton’s gruesome thriller Rope at the Almeida in 2009. In this decade there were also fine revivals of Pinter’s Old Times (Helen McCrory, Gina McKee and Jeremy Northam) and Betrayal (Toby Stephens, Dervla Kirwan and Samuel West), both at the Donmar Warehouse, both triangular dream-like recollections of friendship, time slippage and sexual ownership.
Two of his most remarkable films, both written by Kureishi, celebrated the enduring sexual potency of senior citizens. In The Mother (2003), Anne Reid as a widowed grandmother falls in explicit lust with Daniel Craig as a handsome handyman who is renovating her son’s house while having an affair with her daughter; and in Venus (2007), Peter O’Toole’s elderly actor is charmingly attracted to his friend’s grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker); O’Toole’s performance in this touching and unusual film won him his eighth and last Oscar nomination.
The rich, almost kaleidoscopic pattern of Michell’s career embraced a lovely adaptation (by Penhall) of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (2004 with Craig and Maxwell Martin); Bill Murray as FDR and Olivia Colman as the consort Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on Hudson (2013); a wonderful comic duel between Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a middle-aged couple re-examining their marriage on an anniversary trip to Paris in Kureishi’s Le Week-End (2013); and a stylishly done re-make of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (2017), with smouldering performances from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz.
A heart attack in 1999 meant Michell had to pull out of Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, a project that fell successfully to the director John Madden. And he withdrew from directing Craig’s second Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, becoming anxious about the schedule and the lack of a script to allow for the assiduous preparation he favoured before shooting.
On television, two documentaries about actors – Michael Redgrave, My Father (1997) and Nothing Like a Dame (2018) with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Atkins comparing notes, somewhat tartly, amid smirks and giggles in Joan Plowright’s garden – were punctuated by two impressive dramas. In The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (2014), Jason Watkins played Michell’s Clifton college teacher falsely and disgracefully vilified after being discharged as a murder suspect; and in the 2015 film of Penhall’s surreal but serious Birthday (Royal Court, 2012), Stephen Mangan took on a reproductive and maternal role in lieu of his high-flying executive wife (Lisa Dillon), who had not enjoyed having their first child.
The range and variety of this work amounted to a confirmation of human dignity and humane values, all expressed with nuance, subtlety and good humour. There was never anything mucky or murky in Michell’s work, as he became an outstanding technician in cinema as well as a leading practitioner in theatre. With so much more to look forward to, his death must be counted a tragic loss.
Michell won two Bafta awards, for Persuasion and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, and was the Judith E Wilson senior fellow at Cambridge in 1990.
He was married to the actor Kate Buffery from 1992 to 2002, when they divorced. In 2010 he married Anna Maxwell Martin; they announced their separation in 2020. He is survived by two children, Rosanna and Harry, from his first marriage, and two, Maggie and Nancy, from his second.
• Roger Harry Michell, theatre and film director, born 5 June 1956; died 22 September 2021