Displaying impressive talent indeed, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a mostly intoxicating and involving tale of intrigue and crime that loses its stride somewhat in the home stretch. This highly scenic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic murder meller is splendidly served by a beautiful cast headed by Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, and proves a fine follow-up by writer-director Anthony Minghella to his Oscar-winning “The English Patient.” Outfitted with an immediately engaging story and appeal across the audience spectrum, this Paramount-Miramax co-venture looks to be a muscular B.O. performer here and abroad.
Well filmed in 1960 by French director Rene Clement as “Plein soleil” (Purple Noon) with Alain Delon, Highsmith’s 1955 novel, the first in her Ripley series, is an eerie tale of a young man trying to acquire what another has by murdering him. Minghella has upped the ante in numerous ways — by emphasizing the gay angle as well as the murderer’s desire to assume the identity of the charismatic fellow he does away with, and by populating the story with attractive expat Americans on the loose in the enticing Italy of the late ’50s.
Latter element gives the film’s first hour a truly heady feel, as it settles luxuriantly in a world of sexy, moneyed Yanks living la dolce vita around the beaches, cafes and jazz clubs of the time. It’s certainly a world that is enormously appealing to Tom Ripley (Damon), a nice, well-spoken, bespectacled kid from New York who’s paid by shipbuilding tycoon Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to fetch back his wastrel son, Dickie (Law), who has been spending his considerable allowance at a rapid pace in Europe.
Quickly managing to ingratiate himself with the privileged Dickie and the latter’s beautiful writer girlfriend, Marge (Paltrow), Tom becomes a happy hanger-on in their idyllic seaside town south of Naples; he amuses Marge and establishes a bond with the effervescent, impulsive Dickie via jazz, a passion they share at various boites up and down the coast. Revealing his mission to Dickie, Tom becomes a “double agent,” pretending to try to bring the young man home to Mr. Greenleaf but happily sharing in the money he supplies.
The writing and playing of these scenes of youthful abandon could scarcely be better. The fluid casualness of the lifestyle, the simultaneous sense of discovery and waste, the awareness of personal beauty and sexual allure at their peak, the feeling that things should always be this good, but the knowledge that the moment can’t last — all this and more are present in the lightly witty banter and the chemistry that takes hold among the characters, courtesy of the fine actors.
At one point, Marge confides to Tom that Dickie, whom they both adore, is like the sun, warming anyone he blesses with his full attention, and that it becomes cold when he turns elsewhere. Crucially, Law fully measures up to this description, easily functioning as the magnetic force that puts everyone around him in his orbit.
As the glorious summer season ends, however, so does the wind shift on the happy threesome. A visit from Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a brash American dedicated to one-upmanship, puts the lower-class Tom in foul humor; the very public suicide of a pregnant village girl causes the guilt-ridden Dickie to want to move on, and Mr. Greenleaf’s cutting off of funds brings to a close this rarefied period in the group’s lives.
On a final boat ride in a small launch out of San Remo, however, Dickie suddenly erupts, insulting Tom. Without seeming to mean to hurt him badly, Tom hits Dickie with an oar; once the blood starts flowing freely, however, Tom thinks nothing of finishing off the friend he has envied and obsessed over since he arrived in Italy.
One element that makes Highsmith’s work so disquieting is her suggestion that anyone is capable of murder, given the circumstances and motivation.
Minghella has faithfully retained this theme, as Tom Ripley, with his clean-cut looks, smart manner and monogrammed sports coat, seems like anything but a candidate for serial killer. But once he’s started, once he’s discovered what he’s capable of, a new life opens up for the young American, one that includes trying to assume the identity (and bank account) of Dickie, who, Tom tells Marge, has holed up in Rome for a few days.
Ripley’s talents include quick thinking on his feet and clever responses to difficult situations as they present themselves; in line with the jazz prominently featured on the soundtrack, Tom is brilliant at improvising, as well as at such useful tricks as forging Dickie’s signature and imitating voices.
As he undertakes a shopping spree in Rome and successfully cashes checks using his friend’s passport as ID, Tom also begins grooming himself to resemble his idol.
The first time his ruse puts him in a bind is in a superb sequence at the opera, where he accompanies a friendly but rather dim upper-class Yank, Meredith (Cate Blanchett), who believes he is Dickie, but also runs into Marge and her handsome British escort, musician Peter (Jack Davenport). Again, Tom ingeniously turns adverse conditions to his advantage.
After Tom brutally slays the overly inquisitive Freddie and is forced to deal with the inevitable police investigation, the film starts losing its special quality; it begins being led by the plot and becomes beholden to intricate procedural details, which pushes it into more conventional territory than it has inhabited up to this point.
Marge understandably becomes increasingly unhinged and suspicious with the passage of time, Dickie’s father arrives on the scene to dig deeper into his son’s mysterious disappearance than the Italian police have managed to do, and the audacious Tom begins a liaison with Peter right under everyone’s noses.
Chess game continues up through a tense shipboard climax. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end where it should, on a note of ambiguous alarm, instead moving on to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.
Crime dramas such as this have generally come to be approached these days in a neo-noirish style, but Minghella takes a gratifyingly non-genre tack, working boldly in a full-bodied dramatic and visual manner that does not pigeonhole the material.
Scenes are played out in a classical fashion that elicits many nuances from the actors, and full value is extracted from the already rich material; for example, the gay subtext of some of Highsmith’s work, including that in Hitchcock’s adaptation of “Strangers on a Train,” is brought to the fore here.
Performances are aces top to bottom. Damon outstandingly conveys his character’s slide from innocent enthusiasm into cold calculation, Law is the picture of indolent, effortlessly alluring youth, and Paltrow increasingly reveals deeper layers to a character that seems rather straightforward at the outset.
The wondrous Blanchett exactly captures a particular sort of flighty American aristocrat, Hoffman is similarly superb and exact in his portrait of a bright but boorish snob, and Davenport is appealingly understated in what could have been a cardboard part. Rebhorn is authoritative as Dickie’s industrialist father, while Philip Baker Hall takes command in his brief appearance as a straight-talking Yank investigator.
This is the sort of picture that makes one dream about how great it must have been to be on the shoot. The diverse Italian locations, ranging from Palermo to Venice and seemingly everywhere in between, provide lenser John Seale with unsurpassable visual opportunities, and he makes the most of them.
Production designer Roy Walker has supplemented the natural wonders with details that evoke the country during a particularly memorable period of its recent history, and Ann Roth and Gary Jones’ costumes prove very helpful in positioning the characters in relation to one another; Tom’s corduroy jacket, which he persists in wearing, instantly brands him as decidedly less cool than his fellow expatriates. Editor Walter Murch and composer Gabriel Yared also make important contributions.