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The Talented Mr. Ripley

Believe It Or Not

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Anthony Minghella Based on the novel by Patricia Hingsmith

With Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn

Anthony Minghella is rapidly becoming the king of literary adaptation. Not only has he succeeded in making a great movie out of the virtually unfilmable The English Patient, but he also managed to make the movie better than the source novel by completely re-working the book’s structure and shifting the focus from one relationship to another. Now he adapts Patricia Hingsmith’s classical thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, also making a dramatic change to the book.

No, the plot is virtually identical to that of the novel: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, in by far the best performance of his career) is sent to Italy by a certain Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy ship-building magnate, to bring home his son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). When in Italy, Ripley rapidly befriends both Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), falling in love with Dickie’s idle life of privilege. Falling in love so much, in fact, that he’s willing to do anything to keep living it.

Two things have changed: the genre and the title character. The novel was a thriller; the film is a romantic tragedy. Hingsmith’s Ripley was the anti-hero; Minghella’s Ripley is the hero, tragically flawed at best, but still the one character who changes and evolves as the story progresses.

In this, Minghella is aided immeasurably by Matt Damon who is riveting. If there’s another case of an actor using his own limitations equally well, I don’t know of it. Damon rarely seems to be able to transcend his boyish charm and good looks, and here he transcends them by overemphasizing them until they start looking positively sinister (Tom Cruise does a similar trick, although with less effect, in Magnolia). When Ripley lies while flashing a wide grin and exposing all his perfect teeth, the effect is chilling; and Damon just keeps that sunny smile on his face until it starts to look positively spooky.

But what makes him a real hero (in a narrative sense), is the fact that everything he does is perfectly logical and has a true psychological motivation. Ripley’s immorality is established early on -- in the very first shot, as a matter of fact, via a beautiful visual metaphor. What happens to him later is made completely unavoidable by two forces: external circumstances and his own character. The whole second half of the film is a jazzy dance of lies and violence, when Ripley’s only way to cover one lie is to make another one, and the only way to escape the punishment for a violent act is to commit another one. In this way, it is both impossible for the audience to hope for his success and to hate him (for anti-heroes these two circumstances usually go hand in hand). His inner life is presented so vividly (paradoxically enough, this is accomplished mostly via the intentional opaqueness of Damon’s acting), that it is impossible not to empathize with Ripley.

The supporting cast is solid, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxious American who is as ugly as he is smart. The real standout, though, is Cate Blanchett. She has a relatively small part (although, plot-wise, she’s one of the most important characters), and she’s utterly luminous and touching; as a matter of fact, her performance is the best one of 1999, male or female, lead or supporting. Each time she smiles, the screen glows; each time Ripley used her as a pawn in his game, my heart broke.

But the movie really belongs to two people: Damon and Minghella. The latter, aided in no small measure by Walter Murch’s virtuoso editing, makes The Talented Mr. Ripley an eye-full, with spectacular cinematography, gorgeous Italian locations, and memorable images. The opening sequence in particular, with its splintering screens (both modernistic and retro-looking) and bold color bars to highlight the credits, is nothing short of excellent. Minghella also knows what it is to create a suspenseful sequence: one involving Ripley walking toward Marge, his hand clenching a weapon in his pocket, is particularly tense.

The source material fights back somewhat, though: the genre change pays off handsomely, and at the same time creates a certain problem. The story, at its heart, is still a thriller, a low genre, and playing it like a noble tragedy limits the enjoyment to be gleaned from the purely suspenseful elements of the story. In particular, The Talented Mr. Ripley just feels too slow, especially considering that its entire first half is nothing but a glorified setup for the second hour. I cannot really point to a single scene that can be shortened, but I wish the whole movie was faster paced.

Minghella achieves amazing results by adding a massive layer of psychological complexity to what is, deep down, a pulp thriller; and, once in a while, I wished I could merely enjoy that pulp thriller. When Ripley whacks one of the more annoying characters on the head, this scene plays like a pivotal dramatic action -- as a next turn of the ever-tightening plot, as a profound character insight, and as a visual metaphor as well. All of this is grand, of course, but deep down inside I kept wondering why this scene isn’t any fun. Take this as an admission of my plebeian taste -- or as a sign that The Talented Mr. Ripley occupies a strange position halfway between thriller and drama.