Ripley’s Game



UK/Italy 2002 : Liliana CAVANI : 110 mins

Patricia Highsmith’s sociopath-hero Tom Ripley has been thoroughly ‘Hannibal Lecterised’ in this version of her novel Ripley’s Game – instead of his cosy French chateau, he now luxuriates in an opulently vast Italian villa over which it’s easy to imagine Thomas Harris’s cannibal creation licking his lips in approval. Director Cavani, who collaborated on the screenplay with Charles McKeown, emphasises the Lecterish aspects of Ripley’s character from the very first scene, in which he interrupts an art-world business deal to viciously smash a Mafioso’s head with a handy blunt instrument.

To extend the Lecter analogy a stage further, Ripley’s Game is to The American Friend (Wim Wenders’ loose but brilliant 1977 adaptation of the novel) as Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon was to Michael Mann’s visionary Manhunter. On the one hand, we have relatively faithful but largely uninspired filmings of novels by pedestrian directors, on the other we have auteurs who respect the spirit of the books while launching off into their own, very cinematic universe.

The direction and script of Ripley’s Game are workmanlike at best, but the elegant story – in which Ripley (John Malkovich) connives to turn innocuous, terminally-ill picture-framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) into a cold-blooded hit-man – remains strong enough to withstand the various unwise amendments made by Cavani and McKeown. Any viewer who is a fan of Highsmith and/or The American Friend will have major problems with this version, unless they can concentrate purely on the film in hand – a process made immeasurably easier by the efforts of Malkovich and, in a key supporting role, Ray Winstone.

Bulky cockney Winstone seems at first an unlikely choice for the role of Reeves Minot: Wenders adhered closely to Highsmith’s description with his choice of the small, slim, self-effacing Gerard Blain. Here the role is beefed up in every way – Minot has much more to do, and there’s physically much more of him to do it. Winstone injects much-needed pep and humour into Ripley’s Game – his gleeful boorishness is almost as much fun as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s superb bull-in-a-china-shop turn from Anthony Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley. And he more than holds his own against Malkovich (whose trademark air of amoral, dreamy disconcern overrides his basic physical mismatch with the literary Ripley) in what emerges as a fascinating clash of polar-opposite acting styles: “There’s something of the mudslide about you,” intones the American in a voice that combines contempt and appalled admiration.

Scott fares infinitely less well, unfortunately. As in Enigma, this hearty Scottish bloke makes an unconvincing sickly Englishman (Mary Selway cast both films), and he’s too much of a dead-zone on the screen for Trevanny to fulfil his function as the audience’s entrance-point into Ripley’s world of exotic criminals and killers. Scott’s hollow-eyed, hollow-souled negative-energy makes him the most unappealing leading man since Laurence Harvey (and thus ideal for the Harvey role in Jonathan Demme’s ominous-sounding remake of The Manchurian Candidate: casting director please take note.)

Scott’s unsuitability, plus the script’s tiresomely ill-advised departures from the book, mean that Ripley’s Game takes a very long time to find its stride – the first half-hour seems to promise an especially unappetising, botched Euro-pudding of a would-be thriller. But matters do, against all odds, improve as Malkovich settles into character, the scenes become less choppily short, and the satisfying contours of Ripley’s plot slide into place. Crucially, Cavani and McKeown do manage to solve the major problem with both the book and the Wenders version – the ending – by adding a violent, satisfying coda that makes surprisingly solid dramatic and psychological sense. Even Highsmith might – just conceivably – have approved.

27th May, 2003
(seen same day: UCI MetroCentre, Gateshead)

by Neil Young