The Talented Mr. Ripley

You can't escape those humble origins.

ANTHONY MINGHELLA'S first film since his Oscar-winning 1996 The English Patient is well-cast, smoothly directed, and beautifully shot; despite its two-hour 20-minute running time, it keeps you focused to the end. Still, you come out feeling nothing but mild curiosity: Why did anyone lavish so much time, talent, and money on such a mouse of a movie?

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY directed by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law opens December 25 at Neptune, Oak Tree, Pacific Place

The Talented Mr. Ripley is based on a thriller of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, a latecomer to the mystery novel form. By the time she wrote Ripley in 1955, others like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain had already pushed the conventions of crime fiction to the limit; there wasn't much left to do but tweak them.

Highsmith's tweaks were simple but effective. Her novels about Tom Ripley adopt the point of view of their protagonist. And since Ripley is a charming psychopath, the reader is made his accomplice. Another twist: Ripley gets away with his crimes, even prospers. I suspect it's these variations on a hackneyed genre that have led fans to attribute more depth to Highsmith's efforts than the escapist fare they love at the multiplex. Certainly it led Minghella, in his screenplay and direction, to go for subtlety and depth of character you don't often find in movie thrillers.

And for good reason: Treating Double Indemnity like Anna Karenina just doesn't work. You can't turn melodrama into tragedy by an act of will. In tragedy, character is fate. In melodrama, fate is fate, and the fun comes in watching it operate on the just and unjust alike. By trying to drape Highsmith's minutely calculated mechanism of coincidence and irony with human significance, Minghella just succeeds in making it look cheap. (In his 1951 Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock knew the material better. The characters played by Farley Granger and Robert Walker exist only to drive the plot, not vice versa.)

IN HER REVIEW of Ren頃l魥nt's 1960 version of Ripley (variously known as Plein soleil, Purple Noon, and Lust for Evil), Pauline Kael talked about the way the film balances a look of "the sun-drenched-holiday style of travel posters" with "homosexual hatred and envy festering" in the background. In Minghella's version, the queer overtones of the relationship between penniless tourist Tom Ripley and spendthrift 魩gr頄ickie Greenleaf are right out in the foreground and treated with reverent seriousness. Kael didn't much like Plein soleil; "All it has going for it is this sensuous, kicky atmosphere," she wrote; "You feel as if you're breathing something beautiful and rotten." Thanks to Minghella's candor, you don't feel like you're breathing anything at all. The film's beautiful—Italy through the lens of cinematographer John Seale—but devoid of affect.

Matt Damon would have been the perfect Ripley had he been allowed to exhibit the slightest zest for a life of impersonation, treachery, and mayhem; he's got the charm but not the flair. As the gilded Greenleaf, Jude Law has the flair but not the charm; there's something reptilian about him when he's trying hardest to be engaging.

As the woman unwittingly caught between the two, Gwyneth Paltrow is lovely and expressive as ever, but Minghella's approach requires her to pour on the raw emotion like some latter-day Bette Davis. It's not a pretty sight. Most effective are those in minor roles, who are allowed the freedom to play one note and play it well. Cate Blanchett is hilarious and touching as the poor, plain little rich girl smitten with Ripley, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the tiny role of a poisonous toad with a prep-school accent, is memorable enough to turn up in your nightmares.

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