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Review: 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' -- believe it

December 23, 1999
Web posted at: 5:57 p.m. EST (2257 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- What do you do after your 1996 film, "The English Patient," wins Academy Awards for best film of the year; best directing (Anthony Minghella); best editing (Walter Murch); best cinematography (John Seale); best costumes (Ann Roth); and best score (Gabriel Yared)?

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Theatrical preview for "The Talented Mr. Ripley"
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If you're writer-director Minghella, you adapt another difficult book for the screen. This time, he's chosen the popular 1950s suspense novel, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the first in a series of "Ripley" books by the late Patricia Highsmith. And you hire the same behind-the-scenes award-winning people you used before. And you hope lightning strikes twice.

It seems to have worked.

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" has received five Golden Globe nominations this week, including best dramatic film of the year. Both Matt Damon and Jude Law are nominated (for best actor and best supporting actor, respectively), and Minghella is once again singled out for his direction, as is Yared for his musical score.

This isn't the first time Highsmith's work has been made into a major motion picture. Alfred Hitchcock made "Strangers on a Train" (1951), based on one of her books. And this same "Ripley" novel was made into a film once before -- in 1960, it was released as "Purple Noon," a French-Italian thriller starring Alain Delon and directed by Rene Clement.

Chameleon at work

This time, Damon stars as Tom Ripley, a young piano player from the wrong side of the tracks. He's mistaken for a Princeton schoolmate of Dickie Greenleaf (Law) by Greenleaf's millionaire father, Herbert (James Rebhorn). He hires Tom to retrieve his son from the idle life he's living in Italy during the late 1950s.

Dickie and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) befriend Tom -- despite their misgivings about who he really is -- and he quickly becomes something of a double agent. After confessing his true mission to Dickie and Marge, he continues to take the elder Greenleaf's money. But instead of trying to get Dickie to go home, he's secretly in cahoots with the two young expatriates in their pursuit of "la dolce vita."

Tom takes to that good life like a duck to water and begins to worship both Dickie and his wealth. But when Dickie tires of his new companion and threatens to cut him loose, things turn violently dark.

"It's better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody."

-- -- Tom Ripley (Matt Damon),
"The Talented Mr. Ripley"

At this the point, the film departs from Highsmith's novel. Minghella has moved several dramatic actions deep into the story line. Concessions are made in order to maintain some audience sympathy for certain characters. Minghella has also created new characters including Meredith Logue, played by Cate Blanchett. Meredith is another young wealthy American traveling in Europe.

Tom introduces himself to her as Dickie, and his relationship with her mirrors the one between the real Dickie and Marge. Eventually, Meredith's misinformation about Tom's identity helps him to blur reality when it becomes necessary later in the film.

This, it turns out, is the "talent" of Tom Ripley, a criminal propensity for identity switches. We him across Italy watching him slip in and out of personalities, covering his tracks along the way.

Minghella has beefed up the novel's character of Peter Smith-Kingsley, played by Jack Davenport. Peter offers Tom a last-minute chance at a happy life, which he's unable to take.

  MESSAGE BOARD
Does 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' have what it takes for an Academy Award?
Give us your take on the Oscar hopefuls.
 
  ALSO

CNN Interactive's Jamie Allen discovers Mr. Minghella's inspiration for 'Mr. Ripley'

CNN Showbiz Today's Sherri Sylvester discovers that talent isn't limited to 'Mr. Ripley'

Unfunny valentine

This intriguing and stylish story is told through Ripley's eyes, and he says at one point the signature line for his character, Highsmith's book and Minghella's film: "It's better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody."

That sentiment is at the heart of this film. We're asked to identify with an anti-protagonist. And because of this tightly written script by Minghella and the impressive talents of Damon, we do.

Law is stunningly charismatic as Dickie Greenleaf, and his Golden Globe nomination is greatly deserved. Both Paltrow and Blanchett are perfectly pitched as unwilling foils in Ripley's fiendish plot.

Also well-earned: Yared's nomination for his musical score. The music is almost a character in the film. In the original novel, Dickie is a painter. Minghella has made him a saxophonist in love with jazz. Tom is an opera buff and their different tastes in music inform their characters. Jazz (Dickie) is full of improvisation, loose and relaxed. Opera (Tom) is rigid and controlled.

Opera fans may also note a clever scene about halfway through the film. Tom is almost caught posing as Dickie at an operatic performance. The show onstage mirrors the plot of the film. It's Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," based on Pushkin's poem about a man who kills his best friend.

Another musical moment that goes straight to the plot comes when Damon sings a la Chet Baker the song "My Funny Valentine." His longing for Dickie resonates in every note. (By the way, Damon's crooning is quite good, not that he should quit his day job.)

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Everyone at some point has felt like an outsider, an outcast, and this story taps into that sensation. Tom's sense of being different and his alienation from those around him is highlighted by the fact that he's gay and in love with Dickie and what he represents.

This homosexual element comes from Highsmith's novel; it's been brought forward more in the screenplay. But Tom's sexual orientation is just one of many shadings to Ripley's character and not any kind of main motivational factor.

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" loses a bit of its steam toward the end, but Minghella has still delivered an extremely provocative and well-made film.


"The Talented Mr. Ripley" is rated R for for violence, language and brief nudity. 139 minutes.



RELATED STORIES:
Mr. Minghella's inspiration for 'Mr. Ripley'
date
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RELATED SITES:
Official 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' site
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