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The Talented Mr. Ripley

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: Anthony Minghella
Rated: R
RunTime: 139 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Jack Davenport, Caterina Deregibus, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Rebhorn

Review by Mark Fleming
3½ stars out of 4

Anthony Minghella's follow-up to the acclaimed English Patient (1996) may be far-removed in its subject matter but there are common themes. Against various exotic backdrops he focuses on glamorous upper middle-class lifestyles, and dissects emotions twisting beneath the surface.

Essentially, this story follows the activities of Ripley (Damon), an affable if rather unremarkable music lover. His mild manners mask the fact that he is a ruthless conman. A borrowed old-school blazer is the catalyst that sets him on an epic journey of deception. He connives his way into the home of a shipping magnet's son, Dickie Greenleaf (Law), and his lover (Paltrow). His growing taste for the lavish lifestyle which Greenleaf so wantonly takes for granted leads his secret life into sinister territory. Soon Mr Ripley displays a talent for getting his way that involves use of blunt instruments. Repeatedly.

Amongst the lush Italian architecture and jazz club chique which attracts the American playboy set, Minghella's film deals with the nature of desire and greed. Who people actually are is not the issue, but rather who people aspire to be. Fitting in becomes the be all and end all. Despite living in a social milieu that can choose which mansion to buy after a glimpse from a speedboat, the characters in this film are all pretenders, singularly haunted by how they are regarded by their peers.

Ripley is scarcely a worthy exception. His mantra is that fake somebodies are better than real nobodies. This cowardly philosophy means he is not only obsessed by how others perceive him, he exists in a moral vacuum. Having inhabited a false persona for so long, he makes the transition from fraudster to serial killer by simply weaving an ever-elaborate web.

In questioning how far one man might be willing to go in playing an elaborate hoax, this movie delves into the dark recesses of the human psyche. The different layers of Ripley's character are stripped away, finally exposing a cold- blooded serial killer. The motives for this downward spiral are never clear. He is not after monetary gain. He makes a vague homosexual advance towards Greenleaf, but is clearly not all that interested. His obsession has a methodical air that makes it all the more chilling.

Minghella's attention to set detail is meticulate. The camera never dwells on the rich scenery; it is merely there. These players inhabit an opulent world of cocktails, jazz clubs and dazzling Italian sunshine, and this director loves camera shots where his characters are gazing down on impressive vistas from a lofty height.

The empty hedonism of Dickie Greenleaf and all these moneyed American wasters should grate but social commentary is not the issue here. This film is all about the power of identity, and the callous crime of stealing someone else's personality; and, ultimately, life.

The Italian setting allows Minghella to dwell on the beauty of religious imagery; ironically so in one serene moment when a statue of the Virgin Mary is being raised from the sea, only to be cast aside when a drowned body is washed up. Minghella also presents obvious symbolism during an Opera where the stage becomes awash in flowing crimson robes.

Another positive aspect is that when violence explodes, it is tangible; drawn-out. When several head-blows are required to finish someone, we must watch each impact, listen to the victim's agonised groans. This places the act in a human context: light years away from Blockbuster bodycounts.

For a film of such ambitious scope there are inevitable flaws. Dramatic cinema requires suspension of belief but any bank clerk who could mistake a passport photograph of Jude Law for Matt Damon seriously needs to visit an optician. When Ripley first intrudes he seems such a dullard compared to Dickie's cocktail set you wonder why the impetuous playboy would so readily accept him as a best friend.

A plot twist requires Cate Blanchett's character to fall for Ripley. But there is no real chemistry to attract her to this rather plain individual other than he seems to be an aesthete who snivels during Opera.

These, however, are minor inconsistencies. Minghella handles the intricate plot development well; ensuring the lengthy tale constantly springs surprises. The very nature of Ripley's complicated deception leads to several neat intersections as circumstance throws together different people with opposite ideas of who Ripley actually is.

Matt Damon is good as the eponymous central character, although he might have striven for some sharper charisma. Too many of his schemes seem to rely on luck where a more colourful personality might have generated plausibility.

In other ways, this average nature is less of a hindrance to the storyline. Although Ripley wishes to join the jet set, he is always an outsider, drifting to different individuals like a satellite. Initially diffident, he stands out a mile as a white American on his first visit to an Italian beach where everyone else is bronzed. Pretending to be equally as fanatical about jazz as Greenleaf he just manages to hide the fact that he doesn't know any lyrics. As his alibis become more complicated, his character does evolve. When he eventually kills, it is only to cover his tracks. He does so reluctantly.

Jude Law gives a bravura display as a calculating, conceited hedonist, his self-satisfying charisma drawing weaker characters like moths to a flame. Capable of a mood swing within a blink of his narcissistic eyelashes, he is a young man who can have anything he wants but is never satisfied. Ripley is drawn to him like a moth, with drastic consequences.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives a measured performance as Marge Sherwood, the quiet lover in Greenleaf's shadow. Athough strictly peripheral, Cate Blanchett's understated role is a perfect gauge for the degrees of Ripley's deception, her reactions to him twisting between love and doubt.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is splendidly boorish as one of Greenleaf's in-crowd. Jack Davenport's role merely requires him to exude politeness. Obviously, this makes him a choice victim for Ripley.

Perhaps a tad over-long and convoluted for its own good, this is still an impressive piece of film-making by a master of the decorative art.

Copyright 2002 Mark Fleming

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