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Writer-director Anthony Minghella has chosen to follow up his Oscar-laden The English Patient with another literary adaptation -- this time, of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith is known to film buffs as the author of Strangers on a Train, the basis for one of Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers; but her work also has been made into a number of European films, of which Rene Clement's Purple Noon (another adaptation of the The Talented Mr. Ripley) is the best.
Why make a new Ripley when Clement's film, which is credited with making Alain Delon a star, has lost none of its appeal over the years? Happily, Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley is not one of those cases where the main justification is "updated" casting or high-tech effects. The director has, in fact, delved into the book's themes with more complexity and depth.
Matt Damon stars as Tom Ripley, a pleasant young nobody in late-Fifties New York. Before the credits have finished rolling, the machinery that drives the film's plot has been set in motion: Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a shipping magnate, meets Tom at a swanky club and mistakes him for a Princeton grad; Tom encourages the mistake, even pretending to know the man's son, Dickie; Greenleaf then hires Tom to go to Europe to retrieve this "old friend," who is on a seemingly endless bohemian adventure.
We never learn much more about who Tom is or where he came from. His life appears to have been a complete zero up until this moment. All we know is that he can play Bach on the piano, and he's an excellent mimic and forger. We also suspect (from his guarded manner and discomfort with his own body) that he is way deep in the closet, so deep that he may not even realize he's gay.
But whoever he has been is unimportant, at least to him. Tom is more concerned with who he can become -- an educated, globetrotting buddy of the princely Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), who is living in Italy with his similarly charmed fiancée, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). Dickie is rebelling against Daddy and his money, thanks, of course, to the luxury provided by Daddy and his money. He hops around Europe from beaches to ski slopes, all the time noodling away on the saxophone, imagining a career as a professional musician.
Before they even meet, Tom is in awe of Dickie's money and social grace. After they meet, he's more than in awe: He's literally in love. He moves in on Dickie and Marge's relationship, becoming a briefly comfortable third wheel. But Dickie's attention span is limited; he has other friends to hang out with, most notably the insufferably snotty Freddy Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Marge is used to Dickie's comings and goings, but Tom can't handle it.
At a certain point Tom loses any chance of having Dickie, but settles for the next best thing: He becomes Dickie. With the latter's various belongings, he sets up shop in Rome as both Tom and Dickie. Thanks to his chameleon skills, this gives him access to Dickie's bank accounts.
There may be an almost sexual satisfaction to this. Just as Norman Bates did with his mother, Tom keeps the feel of Dickie's presence by playacting the part himself. By becoming Dickie, Tom gets to bask in upper-class glory all the time. There is one slight problem with this arrangement: Europe is too small for this ruse to work forever. Tom has two sets of acquaintances, one as himself, the other as Dickie. And sooner or later the two are going to meet.
The talent that the title refers to is Ripley's ability to remake himself at a moment's notice, to rewrite his story in an instant to accommodate whatever new complication arises. It's a great survival skill, but it takes its toll: Each new round of erasing and re-creating his version of reality makes his grasp of it weaker and weaker. He begins to lose track of whatever or whomever he really is.
Minghella is much more explicit about exploring these ideas than Clement was 40 years ago. But explicit may not always be for the best. The sexual undercurrents that ran through Purple Noon lose much of their creepy powers here by being brought to the surface. It could be argued that if anything, Minghella is too concerned with the story's thematic material. He comes dangerously close to overloading the plot with provocative ideas -- enough so that critic Frank Rich was able to spin several thousand words of valid exegesis of the film in New York Times Magazine a few weeks before the film's release (not leaving much for the rest of us to discover).
Purple Noon was clearer and simpler in its themes: Ripley is a class outsider; his envy of Dickie is strictly that of the poor kid pressing his nose to the window while the rich party within. But Minghella makes Ripley a double outsider -- he's poor and he's gay. In order to work out all this material, he introduces a plot strand near the end that feels awkwardly sewn on: Ripley suddenly develops an actual romantic affair. Just who is Ripley in this relationship? He's clearly not playing Dickie. Nor does he appear to be imitating his lover. He seems to be Tom Ripley. It is an odd ploy to suggest that Ripley suddenly has discovered himself. It is to Minghella's credit that we don't notice this at the time. No matter what problems one has with the story (and there are others toward the end), The Talented Mr. Ripley is beautifully made in an old-Hollywood way, sweeping past certain problems.
The period detail is perfect. It's not merely that the jazz LPs spinning on turntables have the right logos for that year; it's that Minghella and his cinematographer, John Seale, have somehow captured the look of Fifties Technicolor romances, even though that process no longer is in use. Minghella draws on Hitchcock as a model without ever lapsing into the sort of slavish, jokey homage that Brian De Palma would have done. Likewise Gabriel Yared's score is subtly reminiscent of the romantic suspense music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock during the period.
But it's the performances that really carry Mr. Ripley. Anybody who has spent time with rich East Coast Ivy Leaguers will recognize Dickie and Marge and their friends down to the smallest movement. Hoffman, in particular, manages an almost spooky re-creation of every arrogant preppy that hangs out in the Ivy League. We immediately understand why Tom falls for Dickie: Jude Law radiates the sort of unconscious sense of entitlement with which guys like Dickie are born. Law's performance is charismatic enough to lift him to stardom, even though he's in less than half the film. (Curiously this is the second film in his short career in which he plays someone whose identity is usurped; the other is Gattaca.)
The characters played by Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, as another Marge-like rich girl, are given less development by the script, precisely because that's all late-Fifties culture would have allowed them. They may be smart, poised, and well-educated, but they're still programmed to settle down as gracious wives and little else.
Primarily it is Damon's picture: He's in nearly every scene, and the camera spends more time examining his face than it does on all the other characters combined. And that's where most of the story plays out. There's a stunning moment about halfway through when Tom's two lives collide. The panic in his eyes is understandable: With major prison time at stake, he's right to be terrified. But then we realize from his look that it's not the legal repercussions he fears; it's the social embarrassment. Doing hard time is trivial compared to the horror of being revealed for the nothing he truly is.
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