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Anthony Minghella isn't on the top of lists as among the great directors of the last few decades, partly because his career was tragically cut short by his death in 2008. It also doesn't help that two of his best known films were so clearly made with Oscars in mind, either in his or his producer's. But in between The English Patient (1996) and Cold Mountain (2003), there was The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Unlike either of those two films, it didn't win any Oscars and that might be one of its strong suits. Here, we find a filmmaker with a cast completely detached from stupid awards concerns and instead devoted to making a slow-burning thriller that takes full advantage of a lengthy running time.
Ripley is based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose work has provided us with cinematic masterpieces like Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and the first screen adaptation of this novel, Rene Celement's Purple Noon (1960). Our titular Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a mysterious young man, who will do anything to get out of his pathetic existence as (gasp) a regular person. He just can't fathom continuing his life as someone with responsibilities, a job and struggling for money. So, the first chance he gets, he breaks free and heads down the dangerous rabbit hole of running away from himself for no reason other than the fact that he doesn't like what he sees in the mirror.
Tom's escape hatch is Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), a member of the American aristocracy as the son of a rich shipbuilder. Dickie lives a complete life of luxury away from home in Italy and his father wants him back. When Dickie's father asks Tom if he did go to Princeton, that's the first lie. Instead of saying that he didn't, he says “Yes.” So, Tom is told to go to Italy and bring Dickie home.
When he arrives in Italy, Tom instantly falls in love with Dickie's life. Dickie has it all, including a beautiful girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). They're in love, even with Dickie's philandering ways. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but Tom quickly forgets his mission and starts trying to be more than Dickie's friend. He can't let Dickie have other friends or even Madge. (Yes, Tom hopes to replace that role as well.) But Dickie's isn't stupid and catches on quickly, so Tom turns to murder. Now comes the ultimate opportunity. He can become Dickie and no one would notice... or so he thinks.
The film is a tough one to write about without spoiling the tense third act, where Minghella really puts on a show as a director. In addition, it's also where we see two modern stars really showing their skills in their young age. Before Gwyneth Paltrow became a celebrity lifestyle coach, she was really good, and in fact, much better here than in Shakespeare In Love. She is genuinely more than the pretty arm candy for Dickie and the performance she gives early in the film makes it easy for us to believe that Tom may have underestimated her.
Matt Damon also gives a decidedly different take on Ripley from Alain Delon's performance in Purple Noon. Delon is such an electric, moody performer, far different from Damon, who had a boyish charm in the years around Good Will Hunting. His Ripley is clearly in over his head from the beginning he starts down the role of leaving his true identity. His best scenes are his moments with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Freddie, Dickie's friend and the only person who questions Tom's true intentions.
However, both Damon and Paltrow already had established careers before Ripley. The film really benefited Jude Law, launching his career as an impossibly handsome leading man with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. While he is out of the picture halfway though, the impression that he makes is never far from our minds.
Ripley shows how Minghella was a master at imagery. Shots from The English Patient and Cold Mountain are like landscape paintings, but shots in Ripley are by surrealists. Tom trying to combine his face with Dickie's isn't something a landscape painter would give us, but it's what Picasso would. It's an image that defines the film, instantly making the audience feel uncomfortable with our lead character.
Minghella didn't help his reputation by going back to being a David Lean wannabe with Cold Mountain after Ripley, but we still have this film to prove that he did know how to be a filmmaker without pretension. Perhaps, had he lived longer, he may have found a way to go back and forth between big prestige projects and smaller, personal films. If Ripley was supposed to be a preview of a career we never got to see, then movie fans were robbed of great films when he died.
image courtesy of INFphoto.com