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The Talented Mr. Ripley

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 31 December 1999

Directed by Anthony Minghella.

Starring Matt Damon, 
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, 
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, 
James Rebhorn, Philip Baker Hall 
Cate Blanchett.

Written by Anthony Minghella, 
based on the novel by
Patricia Highsmith. 

"The Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors,” one of the characters tellsthe protagonist of The Talented Mr. Ripley. As it turns out, Ripley (MattDamon) has schooled himself in the art of opening doors. He observes people'sbehavior, mentally files it, and brings it to the fore in instances where itcan be of best use to him. When the wealthy father of a wayward son sends himoverseas to fetch the lad home from Europe, Ripley, discovering that the sonis a jazz fiend, puts himself through a crash course on current jazz records,memorizing the style of the well-known players (Parker, Coltrane) with enoughskill that he can, later, sing a passable rendition of "You Don't Know WhatLove Is" in the style of Chet Baker. (Both of the great singer and trumpeterBaker's signature tunes, "My Funny Valentine" and "You Don't Know What LoveIs,” are used to bookend the film.) Ripley is seen performing classical musicwhenever he can on the piano, making him, presumably, a classical musician.Yet, when he later plays a portion of Bach's "Italian Concerto,” he hits thekeys in a way that sounds an awful lot like Glenn Gould's recording, at thattime, of the same piece. Talent, or something that he also picked up alongthe way?

Turning up on the Italian Riviera, white as a clam, Ripley ingratiateshimself with the wayward son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), and hisgirlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow): Dickie thinks he remembers Ripley fromPrinceton. He has also devoted his life to spending his parents' moneyinEurope, and has no intention of going back to the States. It is the lateFifties, when American money could buy one's way around a lot of post-warEurope in a style to which one can become accustomed. Dickie and Tom(Ripley's surname is only hazily established -- "T. Ripley" can stand for"Thomas,” "Theodore,” "Thadius,” or whatever would be most appropriate) teararound Italy, buy clothes, hang out in jazz clubs and bistros or on Dickie'sboat (named after Charlie Parker). But when Dickie suddenly turns on Ripley,rejects him, and hurts him to the quick, things turn ugly. Very ugly, indeed.

Anthony Minghella's film of the Patricia Highsmith novel -- which wasfilmed once before, splendidly, by French director René Clément as Purple Noon in 1959 -- has class, polish, and style. It has smart, witty dialoguewhich is a pleasure to listen to. It juggles its characters, some glorioussettings, and a playful note of ambiguity regarding the undercurrents of thecharacters' relationships. (This picture will do a lot towards playing chess while in the bath.) It has impeccable production design (by Roy Walker), ajazz-inflected music score by Gabriel Yared, and gold saturated photographyby John Seale which perfectly evokes the Kodachrome look and feel of theperiod, and even replicates those indelible turquoise blues that appeared inClément's film.

And the movie is just too long. It dissipates whatever it achieves in itsfirst hour during its second, and saunters when it should be heightening. Andthe problem is not entirely with the pacing. While the film loses momentumduring its second hour, the filmmakers have also mistaken Matt Damon's boyishlooks for something that's malleable and easily chameleon-like. With hissquare, commanding brow, strong chin, and toothy smile, Damon couldn't bemistaken easily for anyone else, horn-rimmed glasses or not. By comparison,Alain Delon, who played Ripley in Purple Noon, had striking looks, but theyalso had a shining, shimmering, spectral quality to them, like an image seenin a mirage. He looked gorgeous, but he could also just as easily movethrough a crowd like a blur.

Gwyneth Paltrow acts plaintively -- again -- and Cate Blanchett, playing anAmerican who bumps into Ripley and then crosses paths with him, again, whilehe's impersonating Dickie, performs with a strained, somewhat overweeningquality that Judy Davis (another Australian actress) has when she playsAmericans in some films. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns up to create a rich,hubristic, and frankly treacherous character as one of Dickie's hobnobbingfriends, but he's not in very much of the picture. Only Jack Davenport, as ahandsome, suave, but actuallygentle-spirited young concert pianist, whobecomes the next person Ripley attaches himself to, creates a good amount ofinterest in the second half. (But the filmmakers seem to tip their hand abit, here, to the audience -- don't worry yourselves too much, this characteris doomed.)

Damon himself seems to freeze during the scramblings and deceptions intowhich the story moves during its near-arduous second half (maybe he wasbecoming a bit over-extended, himself). We only get a fleeting glance at whatwould make Ripley resort to desperate measures, so to speak, and laterresort, again, in the scene where he and Dickie face-off. But the way thefilm is structured -- less as a thriller, more like a character study -- weneed something more, an existential notion of what the confines of Ripley'sinner character are like. The film doesn't fully deliver on that count, sothe conclusion lacks power. We should feel some terror when we see Ripleysitting, by himself, at the end, a continuum opening up in our heads showingthe course that his life will be taking, one where he'll have to play thegame again and again with more people, other people, until it reaches aninevitable outcome. Instead, we simply see Ripley sitting by himself, nothing  more.

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