The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

D: Anthony Minghella
S: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow

Effective elaboration on the theme of the sexual masquerade from the novel by Patricia Highsmith inappropriately marketed as a thriller. Though the events on screen include several murders and a tale of deception and suspicion, it is ultimately as a cool, meditative study of a repressed homosexual grabbling with his hidden other that the film delivers most effectively. Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Rainmaker) plays the title character, an undistinguished young man who is mistaken for a well-born college graduate and plays along with it, only to find himself engaged by the wealthy industrialist father of a shiftless American playboy (Jude Law) to travel to Italy and persuade his son to return home. Themes of place, class, assimilation, and the relationship between money, apathy, and ambition emerge quickly, and as Damon begins to successfully integrate into the world of a man who seems his absolute opposite, questions of desire on many levels begin to surface which threaten to overturn the characters' value systems and threaten their lives. Without wishing to spoil the plot, a process of identity transference occurs which has more to do with wish fulfilment and passionate desperation than it does with a heinous conspiracy plot, and the film builds to a moving climax laden with dark irony where Damon faces a choice between being happy as who he is or being safe as someone he is not. Though some may find the character's recourse to murder a rather simplistic and extreme reaction to the condition of uncertainty and the threat of revelation, it does up the stakes and make the questions of psychological malaise that bit more visceral, which is to the good in the end (echoes of Swoon and Heavenly Creatures, admittedly, but this is definitely a film with an identity of its own rather than just a mainstream rehash).

After the disappointment of The English Patient, director Anthony Minghella reclaims some of the emotional heft of his masterpiece Truly, Madly, Deeply with this provocative, slow-moving character study. It may not appeal to general audiences, especially when it has been marketed as something quite different from what it really is (it is not Single White Female, okay?), but if you can lay aside generic expectation for long enough for the character dynamics to emerge and develop, it is quite rewarding. Damon's performance is intricate and layered. He seems somewhat mannered by comparison with the superb Jude Law (Gattaca, eXistenZ), but this is as much part of the character as it is a difficulty with the acting. Law is magnetic every moment he is on screen, slipping into the character with uncanny ease and dealing with his contradictions and mood swings with confidence. Completing the trio of leading performances is Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love, A Perfect Murder), who is given a little more weight than her pivotal go-between character in Se7en, but still less than either of the men. The film also features a great turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights, The Big Libeowski), who is becoming a specialist in scene stealing supporting roles.

A certain amount of scene stealing is also done by cinematographer John Seale, or at least by the attractive Italian locations in which much of the action takes place. Though actually a perfectly judged backdrop to the drama which is so much concerned with the idea of a world which glistens on top but masks a degree of darkness, the stunning vistas of various Italian sea resorts and cities frequently threaten distraction. Thankfully the actors and script hold our attention, and Minghella makes judicious use of scenery, set decoration, and especially mirrors and other reflective surfaces to draw attention to thematic content. Unlike in The English Patient however, the imagistic reinforcement is subtle and evolves as the film goes on, ensuring that it never becomes trite or repetitious (although the final image of Damon surrounded by reflections, then shut away from our eyes may have pushed the symbolic system too much to the fore). On the whole, on the level of craft, the film is both effective and aesthetically self-conscious enough to work on more than one level.

There is a lot of visual detail, and a great deal of physical action both in Damon's character and Minghella's direction, ranging from outright performance to more subtle forms of class and behavioural mimicry which increase in intensity as Damon finds himself more absorbed with (and more desirous of) Law. Minghella matches this character arc by allowing the correlation between character and environment to emerge as Damon literally rises from the depths of a squalid New York basement to the fetishistic splendour of an Italian villa filled with jewellery, clothing, and, of course, mirrors, which allow him insight but also become pointers to the development of infatuation (and eventually play a role in the plot). Law's character's response is equally subtle and handled with matching delicacy by the actor. Though it is finally made clear that Damon's interpretation of the relationship is as much a fantasy as the character he is trying to invent to mask his own identity, the confrontation between the two in which the first shift in tone takes place (when the film begins to become a thriller) raises pointed questions. The audience is forced to think about the mixed signals in any close male relationship, and on what level Damon was responding to the image of Law he had created for himself and to what extent he was reading sublimated desire. It is a challenging emotional and psychological conundrum.

The film's second half is concerned with resolving some of the issues raised in the first, but in terms of a mystery/thriller rather than a drama. This change of direction has irked some viewers and commentators, but it is really as much a question of how engaging you find Damon's character. Though he is arguably more cool and ingenious than the panic with which he commits his crimes seems to suggest, he spends much of the latter stages negotiating his way out of the situation in which he has found himself by assuming a variety of masks. He is now forced to act instead of observe and thus must find his true self by sheer necessity. This eventually brings him into contact with Jack Davenport and Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda, Elizabeth), either of whom may offer an unexpected happy ending and a resolution to his problems. There is as much psychological depth in the second half as the first, it is merely a question of how deeply you wish to probe the thematic aspects amid the mounting implausibilities and the general tone of more superficial investigation (murder/mystery) which becomes dominant. Still, it is a logical extrapolation of the condition of ambiguity which informs the first half, and moves the film towards its melancholy and affecting conclusion.

Despite all of these interesting elements, it is difficult to wholly recommend The Talented Mr. Ripley. Its audience is difficult to determine, sold, as it is, as a thriller, but playing more like a melodrama. It is obviously of particular interest in terms of gender and sexuality issues, but this is all a bit cerebral and involved for mass consumption. On the other hand its Hollywood background and the presence of Damon and Paltrow will have more traditional art house audiences hissing their disapproval. Gay viewers, who one would presume will find it especially resonant, may simply find it offensive. Its mixed reception by both critics and audiences was probably inevitable given this nexus of possibilities, and also because it does transgress generic boundaries and attempts to keep one foot in the commercial mainstream and the other outside. On the whole it is a worthwhile film which patient and tolerant cinephiles may well enjoy and should find interesting. It is certainly a welcome relief after as empty and icy a film as The English Patient, though ironically, as the relatively low Oscar profile of Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair has demonstrated, sometimes people like their pleasures to be more straightforward, and The Talented Mr. Ripley is far from that.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.