The Talented Mr Ripley

Peter Bradshaw: A dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study

The world of The Talented Mr Ripley is full of a certain type of rich young person who is "only comfortable around people who have money and despise it". The author of this gorgeous deadpan irony is Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), a highly-strung young heiress first sighted on a first-class Cunard passage to Italy.

It is from observing her that Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a clever, insecure young social climber, begins to learn the self-deprecatory tics and evasions necessary for impersonating someone really rich. A humble piano-tuner and men's washroom attendant, Ripley is mistaken for an echt Princeton man by a wealthy magnate and is charged by him with a mission to go out to Italy to find his tearaway son Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and bring him back to America.

Ripley is delighted to oblige; his sinister, shallow knack of charm-deployment and acquaintance-scraping allows him to befriend Dickie and Dickie's girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Eventually, Ripley's fervent identification with the exquisite Dickie attains a level of pathological creepiness comparable to Michael Redgrave and his ventriloquist dummy in Dead of Night, and his infatuation with their sumptuous lifestyle leads to an erotic obsession and murder.

Anthony Minghella's movie, based on Patricia Highsmith's thriller - itself a sort of bebop version of Henry James's The Ambassadors - is handsomely furnished and designed, its locations and set-dressings a creamy love letter to the dolce vita of 1950s Italy. There is only one big error: on the beach, Matt Damon is shown sporting a crisp set of abs, decades before these were invented. (It is part of what I have elsewhere identified as the Six-Pack Fallacy, whereby any remotely presentable male lead must always have the Pack, but is not shown doing the thousands of daily ab-crunches needed for its upkeep.)

Here, homoerotic attraction is mixed with chippy social envy, and Minghella's film efficiently bottles the consequent gamey aroma and holds it under our noses. Jude Law gives a very stylish and charismatic performance as the exquisite Dickie, all cruelty and caprice. He easily outclasses the nerdy, bucktoothed Matt Damon - the picture suffers a very noticeable voltage-drop when Law is off-screen. The women are very underwritten. Paltrow is peaky and pallid; Blanchett does her very considerable best with Meredith, though yet again I wonder if anyone is ever going to give her a role to equal Elizabeth.

Philip Seymour Hoffman blows them all away with a scene-stealing black-comic turn as Dickie's awful preppie buddy Freddy Miles - the only one to sense that something is not right with Ripley - making boorish conversation in one of the richest basso profundo voices around.

All these attractive features in Minghella's movie, however, simply go to make up a house of cards which is brought crashing down halfway through by the central plot implausibility of Ripley's getting away with passing himself off as Dickie. Would Meredith really not know what Dickie looks like, never have seen a photo?

Granted, the mass media were not as ubiquitous in the 50s as now - but a fabulously rich young American playboy's doings in Italy would have set the paparazzi bulbs a-popping and his name linked with crime would get the gossip mags working overtime. This mistaken-identity device would be all right in something like an early Shakespearian comedy, but not the modern world, and the final hour of this film is a long and tedious tangle of over-wrought plot compensations.

The Talented Mr Ripley begins as an ingenious exposition of the great truth about charming people having something to hide: namely, their utter reliance on others. It ends up as a dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study. Ripley says he'd rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody - but a fake nobody is all we're offered...


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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