The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

reviewed by
Scott Renshaw

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (Paramount/Miramax) Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn. Screenplay: Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Producers: William Horberg and Tom Sternberg. Director: Anthony Minghella. MPAA Rating: R (violence, brief nudity, profanity, adult themes) Running Time: 135 minutes. Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

For the life of me, I don't know why any film-maker would take on the thankless task of literary adaptation. If he takes too many liberties (see: Roland Joffe's THE SCARLET LETTER), he risks derision. If he is too scrupulously faithful (see: ANGELA'S ASHES), he risks creating a narrative without its own identity as a film. You don't want to infuriate fans of the source material (Paul Verhoeven's STARSHIP TROOPERS), and you don't want to sacrifice a unique artistic perspective just to get every detail right (THE GREEN MILE). Guaranteed name recognition comes with a price. It is, simultaneously, a can't-miss and a can't-win proposition.

If Anthony Minghella feels that pressure, he sure doesn't show it. He squeezed and compacted THE ENGLISH PATIENT's complex narrative, and came up with a beautiful old-fashioned romantic drama. Now, in taking on Patricia Highsmith's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, he has completely re-made the story's titular morally-ambiguous protagonist. The result may give purists fits, but it's a strangely invigorating piece of psychological suspense. Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, a young New Yorker living just close enough to lives of privilege to understand he doesn't live one himself. A unique opportunity arises when shipbuilding magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) offers to send Tom to Italy, believing Tom to be a college classmate of his son Dickie (Jude Law). Greenleaf wants the free-living Dickie to return home, and hopes his "friend" Tom can persuade him. Tom, however, finds Dickie's life of expatriate revelry far too fascinating to be concerned with much besides ingratiating himself into it -- by any means necessary.

Those familiar with Highsmith's novel will remember Ripley as a con artist (he uses his address and IRS letterhead to collect "underpaid taxes" from naive self-employed artists) who coolly considers murdering Dickie. Minghella is more interested in the Tom who initially sees his trip to Europe as a fresh start, and whose actions snowball into something he can no longer control. Minghella's RIPLEY turns Tom into something far more than an admittedly fascinating portrait of amorality. He's a man obsessed with fitting in who ultimately has no chance of fitting in -- a twisted knot of self-loathing, self-justification, fear, exhilaration and calculation. Those who would knock Matt Damon's unconventionally creepy performance as too bright-eyed aren't looking at Tom Ripley the way I think Minghella wants us to look at him: as a fellow unable to stop himself from performing his entire life in search of acceptance for something he's not.

Minghella combines this twisty characterization with direction that occasionally leans too heavily on visual metaphor. When Dickie discovers Tom playing dress-up with his clothes, Tom hides behind a mirror, his head appearing above a reflection of Dickie; when Dickie's fiancee Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) confronts Tom with suspicions of his duplicity, he stands before her (literally) exposed. The cues can feel a bit heavy-handed, but Minghella can also stage scenes where tension appears in unexpected ways -- a shouted confession unheard, a lingering moment caught in the space between two lies. It's one thing to direct actors well, which Minghella certainly does here (Philip Seymour Hoffman is particularly fine as an icily condescending ugly American). It's rarer to find someone who can find all the right notes in character interaction, from the turn of a phrase to the placement of an uncomfortable silence.

Many viewers are likely to be put off by THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY's less-than-tidy conclusion, which serves as a bookend to the film's arresting opening shot. Of course, that's just one of the many ways that Anthony Minghella risks losing his audience. He interrupts a relationship drama with a bloody confrontation; he changes some characters from the novel radically, and introduces new ones. His interpretation of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is undeniably a departure from Highsmith, but it's a departure that works the way any thoughtful re-interpretation can work. The talented Mr. Minghella has fashioned a seductive, sad portrait of a man helplessly watching the loss of his own soul. It may be fitting that Tom Ripley, master chameleon, has taken on yet another new shape for this version of his story.

     On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Ripleys, believe it or not:  9.

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