Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient did not have the beauty (such is Italy versus the Middle East), the narrative strength or the strong characterizations of The Talented Mr. Ripley. While it won best picture, it can comfortably be catalogued in that big picture-big bore compendium of Gandhi, The Last Emperor, and Out of Africa. The somnabulate performances by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas sealed the deal.
Not so in Minghella’s follow-up. Matt Damon plays, in his own words, a “nobody” named Tom Ripley who by chance and minor deception is hired to retrieve the wayward son (Jude Law) of a shipping magnate (James Rebhorn) in Italy. When he gets there, Damon insinuates himself into Law’s life, as well as the life of his fiance (Gwyneth Paltrow) through a mix of artifice and honest friendship. Damon immediately becomes entranced by Law and by Law’s life. His love-affair with both gives us entree into the mind of a malformed ego undergoing slavish adoration.
And Law is worthy of adoration. He is the energy of this picture, alternately charming, impetuous and cruel. As Damon keeps sidling up to Law, you feel for both if them. Damon is voracious but because Law is so captivating, Damon’s need to be near him and eventually to be him elicits understanding. This is a crucial component, for while the sexual undertones are strong, what Minghella does is make you a partner to Damon’s mental, rather than physical lust for Law.
This is the film’s triumph, as most psychological thrillers suffice to center on the madness within the sociopath, rather than lay a sympathetic base for why the sociopath becomes sociopathic.
Here, Minghella allows us to see the Damon-Law relationship through courtship, their bad moments, Damon at his most fawning and pathetic, Law at his most generous and spiteful. All with the backdrop of beautiful Italy, a locale Minghella makes almost dreamlike, the better to underscore Damon’s dizzying descent.
Damon manages the role very well, though he overrelies on a few tics (the weird, self-effacing grin, the penetrating stare). Still, his is a measured and affecting performance, certainly a worthy contrition for his “aw shuckism” of Saving Private Ryan. Everyone else is quite good, with special mention to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Law’s monied playboy friend from Princeton. His time on screen is limited, but he dominates every moment he has with a dry, smart rendering.