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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 12/23/1999, B: Peter Keough,

Multi Talented

Mr. Ripley is the film of the year

by Peter Keough

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, Directed by Anthony Minghella. Written by Anthony Minghella based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. With Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn, Sergio Rubini, and Philip Baker Hall. A Paramount Pictures release.

Deservedly or not, and owing mostly to a late flurry of such releases as American Beauty, Three Kings, and Being John Malkovich, 1999 has built a reputation as a landmark year for innovation and originality in film. In fact, the "newness" of many of these movies was already passé in 1970; what's more, the best film of the year is also the most old-fashioned. Although it goes on one stilled heartbeat too long, Anthony Minghella's masterpiece, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's creepy favorite The Talented Mr. Ripley, is indeed fashioned the old, classical way. All its parts -- narrative, performances, cinematography, soundtrack -- combine organically to form a radiant whole. But the themes sounded by this shining integrity couldn't be more cutting edge: the arbitrariness of identity, the elusiveness of desire, the inevitable isolation of the soul.

Ripley's game

LOS ANGELES -- Maybe Jane Austen and William Shakespeare purists are inured to seeing their idols' works distorted on the screen, but not so the fans of Patricia Highsmith. Anthony Minghella -- who for the script of his Oscar-winning adaptation of The English Patient worked closely with its author, Michael Ondaatje -- doesn't expect that his adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley will get the automatic seal of approval from late acclaimed mystery novelist Highsmith's cult following.

"She died within a few days of my starting working on the adaptation," Minghella says. "I think it's much easier to work on [writing a script for] a book while the author is still alive. I loved to spend time with Ondaatje. It was one of the best times I have ever had in my life, to be able to re-imagine the book and then send every drop to the writer to get his comments and his guidance and his approval. It was much harder to re-imagine this book without the blessing of the author."

Without the author's imprimatur, what did Minghella use for guidelines?

"Let's say that this is a reading group and our week's project is to read The Talented Mr. Ripley and then we all said, `Okay, what do you think was great about the book?' I know that we would end up with eight different versions of the key moment. And you have to accept, with a certain amount of chastening, that all I can do is to record as passionately and enthusiastically as I can what I felt I was reading and accept the fact, because everybody's playing the perfect version of a film when they read a novel. That's one of the wonderful things about reading. It's so intensely personal and perfect. All I can do is tell you about my experience with that book and try to console myself with the fact that the book remains intact, that every single decision I make will betray as much about me as it will about the film.

"Highsmith said herself, she felt as if Ripley was writing the book over her shoulder, that he was typing the story for her. When you go back to the novel, you'll see that it's entirely implicit. It's all about a way of looking at the world. It's not really about activity, and the problem with film is that it's explicit. It's about people doing things, so Ripley has to meet people. He has to do things. So the minute you start to make a screenplay, you're going to be inventing."

Some of that invention occurs in a scene where Tom Ripley, the callow young wanna-be hero played by Matt Damon, invites the object of his obsession, Adonis-like Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), to join him in a bath. Minghella's version of the scene makes overt some of the novel's underlying homoeroticism. But the studio people were trying to market the film as a thriller with a romantic story line between Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a smaller role as Greenleaf's fiancée. Was Minghella troubled that the film was being distorted by its own promotion?

"I feel a great deal of sympathy with your observation. There was a real sense of romance in the film, irrespective of which gender was involved. I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty, which is the studios, both Paramount and Miramax, have been incredibly supportive of this project -- and very supportive of me -- as a singular vision of a film. It could very well have been challenged. Of course there was apprehension, and I think if I ever make a film in which there is no apprehension then I should stop doing it. I've got a journal entry from when The English Patient was released in which I wrote, `If there are more than 10 people at this film, I will be astonished.' And I was astonished. I hope that there will be the same sense of astonishment about the degree of sophistication that the audience has for this movie."

This combination of the conventional and the subversive also partly describes the hero, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who is first seen hammering away at a piano accompanying a soprano singing an aria for an audience of tony Ivy League types. In his Princeton sportscoat and horn-rims he seems a budding upper-cruster himself, and that's what Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) of Greenleaf Shipping takes Tom for when he offers him $1000 to go to Italy for the Henry Jamesian task of bringing back his prodigal son. Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, in a charismatic role ranging from buff demi-god to well-groomed rodent) has fled his legacy to pursue his ambition to be a jazz musician -- this is the meticulously re-created late '50s of late Charlie Parker and early Miles Davis -- and daddy's patience with this whim has run out.

What Greenleaf doesn't know is that Tom's jacket is borrowed and that the bright young thing is a cipher. In the tradition of Jay Gatsby, however, Tom seizes the opportunity, sensing that the first step to becoming a self-made man is not so much being a nobody as being a phony. And at that he's far from polished, which makes his act the more convincing. He stumbles onto the beach at Mongibello in the goggles, bad haircut, loafers, and unfortunate bathing suit that announce a movie makeover is in the works. He introduces himself to Dickie and Dickie's "fiancée," Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), as an old Princeton classmate. Bemused, Dickie replies, "You're so white!"

Indeed he is; Tom's a blank page onto which he imprints his idealization of Dickie, borrowing Dickie's clothes, absorbing his mannerisms, imitating his dilettantish fetish with jazz. For his part, Dickie finds Tom a temporarily amusing adorer, a respite from the clingy Marge. Only Dickie's plummily boorish pal Freddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the great comic performances of the year) perceives this new friend is a mooch and a sycophant; he will prove Tom's nemesis. But Tom has his charm, an appeal to the hapless neophyte in everyone -- and perhaps the narcissistic Dickie is attracted to and repelled by Tom because he recognizes that Tom can play Dickie's life better and more earnestly than Dickie can himself.

That abyss of selfhood and the need to fill it with identity is what drives Ripley, despite its canny guises of homoeroticism and homicide. And in the leading role, Matt Damon masterfully evokes the terror, pathos, and conniving that underlies everyone's search for the figment of who he or she is. Damon is both self-reflexive and spontaneous, calculated and ingenuously vulnerable, as he creates the character of "Tom from Princeton," or as he engages in amusing mimcry of Mr. Greenleaf, or Chet Baker singing "My Funny Valentine." Even when his mummery turns sinister, as he practices before a mirror his biggest performance as Dickie Greenleaf, Damon's eager ingenuousness arouses sympathy that only increases as the stakes grow higher. Paradoxically, in this film in which the hero's self is only a mirror of the world he desires, the world depicted aches with that hero's inner turmoil.

Not since Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now has a film used the patina'd beauty of Italy to such intense psychological effect. Cinematographer John Seale captures a sense of alienation and liberation, of grimy decadence and shimmering purity that mirrors Ripley's protean but always shrewd state of mind. It's a world in which catastrophe is always immanent, whether lurking in a tiny crimson sports car in a murky square at dusk or in a tiny white boat in a swelling lake at noon. There, and in every aspect of Anthony Minghella's rendition of Highsmith's most disturbing novel, from Gabriel Yared's icily complex and insinuating score to the wry tragedy of Cate Blanchett and Jack Davenport in throwaway roles as people who genuinely love a man who never was, Mr. Ripley is the consummation of many talents into one triumphant, subversive illusion.