ANTHONY MINGHELLA'S last film, The English Patient, earned the writer/director quite a lot of praise and a shelf's worth of awards for how ingeniously he'd adapted a seemingly unfilmable novel. His latest film deserves no less, though for subtler reasons. Patricia Highsmith's classic crime novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1954) succeeds best as an unforgettably empathetic portrait of the mind and thoughts of Thomas Ripley -- forger, connoisseur, and one of the most fascinating sociopaths in literature.

When a wealthy businessman mistakes Ripley (Matt Damon) for an old friend of his son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), Ripley gets sent to Italy, all expenses paid, to lure Dickie back to America. Seeing the good life that jazz-happy Dickie is so enjoying in sunny, swinging, seaside Mongibello, Ripley instead conceives a plan to secure for himself a life of leisure, a plan that inevitably leads to murder and impersonation. Of course, telling the story directly would leave it rather flat, so Minghella has wisely expanded and opened up Highsmith's thin plot.

Minghella is forthright about the necessity for such latitude as an adapter, going so far as to avoid rereading the source during the many years and multiple drafts it takes to craft his screenplays. "That's very liberating, because you can't go back to page 63 and see exactly what happened. You know what the destination might be, but you have to find a way, from a clean slate, of finding it. Sometimes that gets mistaken for my trampling over the material, which I have no intention of doing at all. I'm just trying to emphasize the things that I thought were marvelous in the novel, and tease out the implicit meaning of it. Part of that obviously betrays my own preoccupations."

For Minghella those preoccupations were threefold: "It's about the American experience in Europe; it's about what happens when you become obsessed with another man; and it's also about not getting caught. Or apparently not being caught." Though Matt Damon's performance is generally fine, and admirably muted (so much so that Minghella frets that "people might not understand the quality of the performance, as he is mostly an observer, a reactive character"), the film can stumble on the second of these elements, the repressed homosexual longings. Even considering that it's set in the late '50s, too often Ripley's infatuation with Greenleaf comes across in adoring puppy-dog stares that seem straight out of high school, although the juvenile touch may be intentional. One other minor flaw: Playing up the thriller elements, Minghella can't resist one or two easy scares, mostly involving Gwyneth Paltrow shrieking and going pop-eyed. But the film otherwise excels, and is at its best in its lovely view of Italy.

"What I tried to do in terms of how the film looked was to imagine what it was that Ripley was seeing; not to look at it through my particular lens but to imagine how to make the Italy that he wanted, the sybaritic world he would find there. I kind of wanted to give it to him." And so cinematographer John Seale makes the camera practically soak up the Italian surf and sunshine. Every corner gives way to charmingly weathered palazzos, quaint curbside restaurants, and beautifully bronzed locals sipping wine or playing bocce. It's Dickie's imagined paradise as much as Ripley's, and it's easy to see justifying anything, even murder, rather than having to give it up.

But the beauty can be illusory. "Mongibello is actually an invented place, but it's one of the local names for Mt. Etna, which is a volcano. Obviously in my mind that's a metaphor for the film, which has this rather interesting Dolce Vita surface, but it has something chaotic and volcanic underneath." The Talented Mr. Ripley captures both the sparkling surface and the ominous rumblings below, which is why it surpasses an earlier, contemporaneous Ripley adaptation from 1960: Rene Clement's attractive but shallow Purple Noon. Minghella generously credits that film as a help in getting the look of the period right, as it was filmed about the same time his version is set. He looked beyond the characters in Clement's story in order to get a feel for how many cars should be in the street, or to find out what people in Italy were wearing at the time.

"The great news about novels is that they continue to exist irrespective of the mess that filmmakers make of them. You know, The English Patient's still there on the shelf, and so's The Talented Mr. Ripley." And now, so are film versions that work both as thoughtful reimaginings of their sources and as fine, self-contained movie-going experiences in their own right.

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