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
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
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
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