The Talented Mr Ripley

The Talented Mr Ripley


USA 1999, dir. Anthony Minghella, stars Matt Damon, Jude Law

The Talented Mr Ripley shows what happens when a first-rate novelist (Patricia Highsmith) is adapted for the screen by a second-rate director (Anthony Minghella), who, in this instance, is trying to emulate a first-rate director (Alfred Hitchcock). It doesn’t help that Minghella is a big fan of jazz, and indulges his passion by incorporating it into his movie. If you’re a Robert Altman or a Woody Allen, the audience will usually put up with this kind of behaviour. If you’re a Mike Figgis or a Anthony Minghella, however, problems may arise.

A ludicrously fit-looking Matt Damon is miscast as the murderous upstart Tom Ripley, an ambitious but penniless young man in 1950s New York who is dispatched to Italy to retrieve the wayward son (Law) of a millionaire shipbuilder. Damon’s inadequacies are exposed by Minghella’s use of a spot-on supporting cast featuring excellent turns from Law, Gwyneth Paltrow (in full-on Grace Kelly mode), Cate Blanchett, James Rebhorn, Philip Baker Hall and Jack Davenport.

It’s embarrassing to see Damon struggling to make any impact in his scenes alongside the stupendous acting talent that is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who works such wonders with his brief turn in a supposedly marginal role that he makes the movie worth seeing all by himself. The downside of Hoffman’s brilliance is that, after his exit, everything suddenly seems very two-dimensional.

Minghella is a competent enough director, but has problems with pacing and is sorely lacking the flair and complexity needed to really get beneath the surface of Highsmith and her compellingly amoral anti-hero. It’s a mark of Highsmith’s greatness that the story’s many twists, coincidences and contrivances never feel implausible on the page – and it’s a mark of Minghella’s relative failure that, on the screen, plausibility is so rapidly eroded to zero.

That’s not to take anything away from his collaborators – costumes, cinematography, sound and set direction are all absolutely top-notch. On both sides of the camera, it’s the second tier of expertise that makes Ripley worth devoting 129 minutes of your time. If only Minghella and Damon had been up to the task, this film could have been a masterpiece, rather than just a solidly watchable, thoroughly old-fashioned suspense thriller.

by Neil Young