I was never that keen on Anthony Minghella’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, an overlong and far too polished adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s claustrophobic and bitingly cynical novel. But if its success contributed in any way to ‘Ripley’s Game’ getting made, then I tip my hat to the Minghella flick and wish it well.
Highsmith’s novels are studies in what Walter Scott called “the tangled web we weave / when first we practice to deceive”. The murder that necessitates another murder. The lie that requires another lie, then another, until a seemingly straightforward bit of deception finds itself drowning under gallons of whitewash. The consequences of an act. It takes a filmmaker who’s not scared of the darker recesses of the human psyche to engage effectively with Highsmith’s work.
Step forward Liliana Cavani.
Liliana Cavani made ‘The Night Porter’. I’d say her credentials are in order. Like the fastidious, opera-loving Max (Dirk Bogarde) in that film, Ripley is an aesthete who presents to the world an impeccable façade that borders on prissiness, a façade that masks his insouciant capacity for doing bad things. “You know the most interesting thing about doing something terrible?” he asks Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) at one point: “After a few days, you can’t even remember it.”
Ripley imparts this pearl of wisdom after the two of them have done some unmistakably terrible things, although in Trevanny’s defence he’s been largely coerced. It all starts when Ripley and a déclassé associate by the name of Reeves (Ray Winstone) conspire to sell some forged artwork to a Berlin dealer. This gentleman earns Ripley’s ire and violence and double-cross ensue. Ripley parts ways from Reeves and sets himself up in palatial style in an idyllic Italian village. Fast forward three years and he’s playing house with seductive harpsichordist Luisa Harari (Chiara Caselli) and enjoying the fruits of his ill-gotten gains. Two events disturb his pleasant, well-ordered existence. One is a slight from Trevanny at a party. The other is the reappearance of Reeves, now a club owner in Berlin, who wants Ripley to pull a hit on a Russian mobster who’s muscling in on his territory.
Trevanny – an English picture-framer with a wife, Sarah (Lena Headey), and a young child – is suffering from a terminal illness and struggling to earn enough from his business that they will be provided for upon his demise. Ripley elects to steer Trevanny into Reeves’s orbit, effecting the avian-duo-single-stone-usage result of getting Reeves off his back and teaching Trevanny a lesson. All well and good until Reeves calls in another favour and the fecal matter hits the air conditioning device.
Malkovich plays Ripley – to draw upon a comparison made by Bryce of Things That Don’t Suck – as a sort of second cousin to Hannibal Lecter, deviating from the Ripley of the novels but still turning in a compelling piece of characterisation. What makes this film’s Ripley interesting is that, while a criminal, he’s better suited to the more gentlemanly business of forgery – he’ll use brute force when necessary (and sometimes to stomach-churning effect) but he’s the first to admit that it’s not his forte. “A garrotte doesn’t come with an instruction manual,” he muses with just a hint of ruefulness when an antagonist turns out to have survived his ministrations. He even admits to being “fucking terrified” when the chips are down and it’s just him and Trevanny holed up against a group of gunmen.
Cavani understands claustrophia; understands the sweaty tension of the inevitable closing in. Another ‘Night Porter’ comparison: Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling unable to leave their hotel room but doomed anyway. One of the chief pleasures of ‘Ripley’s Game’ is how rooted Cavani’s aesthetic is in the 70s: the look of the film, its pacing, the performances, how comfortable the director is with an unsympathetic protagonist. I can easily imagine this had been made in 1974, the year the book was published … and I wonder what if it had, and how awesome it would have been with Dirk Bogarde as Tom Ripley. And that’s no disrespect to John Malkovich.