The Talented Mr. Ripley
directed by Anthony Minghella
(Miramax, 1999)

It's very easy to like Tom Ripley. It's also very easy to stop liking him -- and that's based only on surface impressions. Anyone learning the secrets locked in the dark, lonely basement of Tom's mind will like him even less.

For Tom is not a nice person. That's not to say he's immoral, as some have suggested -- he has morals, he simply fails to act on them. Sometimes he weeps as he does horrible things, but he does them just the same -- and, soon enough, he forgets the pain and moves on to enjoy whatever benefits his actions have brought him.

Matt Damon is astoundingly good as the very talented, very lucky Tom Ripley. He plays the character with a delicate balance of ingenuousness and cunning, betrayal and remorse.

He falls into his circumstances through a series of events like a cascade of dominoes. A washroom attendant living in lowly surroundings, he is asked to fill in as a pianist for an injured friend. He borrows a jacket for the performance, and wealthy industrialist Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) assumes the Princeton logo is his. Soon, Tom is winging his way to Italy to persuade Greenleaf's wayward son, Dickie (Jude Law) to come home.

But Tom is seduced by Dickie's lifestyle, and soon Tom, Dickie and Dickie's fiancee, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), are an inseparable threesome. Everything was perfect for Tom -- until things went sour. Dickie gets bored and moves on to his next distraction, but Tom isn't willing to let things go. They argue, things get violent, and soon Tom is giving Dickie a clandestine burial at sea.

After concocting an excuse for Dickie's absence, Tom himself starts to travel -- and, using his mastery of voices, mannerisms and signatures, he quickly becomes Dickie Greenleaf to the world. But occasionally, people and situations threaten to expose his charade, and Tom takes whatever actions he must to stifle them.

Damon's Ripley is very believable, yet enigmatic. His own emotions and perceptions are rarely clear; even his sexuality is ambiguous. While we abhor his actions, we somehow still root for his success. We don't want him to get caught.

The film is blessed by several exceptional performances. Besides Damon, Law stands out as the ne'er-do-well playboy with an intense passion for his shallow lifestyle. Paltrow also does a good turn, reveling in her life and love with greater depth than Dickie does, and being one of the rare few who -- eventually -- sees through Tom's deceptions.

The cast is rounded out by Cate Blanchett as traveling socialite Meredith Logue, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie's bluff, unlikable pal Freddie Miles, and Jack Davenport as the sympathetic Peter Smith-Kingsley.

Director Anthony Minghella does an excellent job painting the lives of the idle rich on Italy's sunny coast and in its dark jazz dives. Set in the 1950s, the cinematography is gorgeous. The pace and plotting are excellent; kudos also go to Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel upon which the movie was based. The only failing, perhaps, was in not letting us see Tom enjoy his stolen lifestyle a little more; Minghella spent so much camera time focusing on Tom's various machinations to secure it that we rarely got to see him savoring the fruits of his labors.

There's no mystery here, no conundrum for viewers to ferret out in this film. But it ranks as a psychological thriller nonetheless as Tom slips in and out of personae and sinks deeper and deeper into his own web of lies.

Don't expect to come away from this film feeling good. But chances are you'll be very, very impressed.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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