Saturday 17 September 2011

From the archive: "Ripley's Game"

Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, from the Patricia Highsmith novel, turns out to be a real blast, and that's at least halfway due to John Malkovich in the title role. For fans, this is primo Malko, full-grade Malkovich, Malkovich central; thanks to the dictionary definition of perfect casting, you realise the actor's unrivalled gift for expressing elegant disdain hasn't been this unfettered, this much on display since Dangerous Liaisons (or, at least, Con Air). After the interpretations of buff Alain Delon and preppy Matt Damon in previous Highsmith adaptations, it's a breath of fresh air to see Malkovich attempting Ripley-as-Victor Meldrew; sociopaths just seem that much more believable when they're pissed off at everyone, and the actor here seems to be turning his nose up at everything.

You grasp exactly why this Ripley sneers so often at the outside world as Cavani's camera pans around the character's Italian countryside retreat: with its meticulous canvasses, restored harpsichords, perfectly manicured gardens and virtuoso girlfriend (Chiara Caselli), it's a shrine to carefully cultivated taste. No way is this Ripley going to get his hands dirtied by the "squalid turf war" brought to his doorstep by the slobbish Englishman Reeves (Ray Winstone); this Ripley takes good care of his hands, and the sight of Malkovich sporting oven gloves and tending to his souffle is very nearly worth the ticket price alone. (Winstone, for his part, is on marvellously greasy form in a too-tight leather coat, wolfing down fried eggs smothered in HP sauce; the clash between him and his co-star is a memorable one.) Eventually, Ripley decides to farm out the gun-for-hire work to a weak-willed picture restorer (Dougray Scott), looking to provide for his wife (Lena Headey) after the leukaemia in his system has taken him from her.

Unlike the high (camp) seriousness of Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cavani's film is played - right from the start, and up to a certain point - for ironic, smirking fun; sometimes it resembles Strangers on a Train with laughs. On one level, it can be understood as a film about telephones, and the way people answer them: how Malkovich's fey "hey-lo" comes across as somehow more becoming than Scott's incongruous, wallyish "pronto". Reeves interrupts a classical orchestra's recording session when his mobile bleeps into life; Ripley, sat cross-legged on a yoga mat, simply hangs up when the caller doubts he can come up with $50,000.

The weight of the film exists in Malkovich's head and Winstone's belly; when the plotting has to rely on Scott's jaw and Headey's eyebrows, it does so with much less success. Cavani constructs a couple of decent suspense sequences around Scott's sickly features as he ponders what it is to take a life, but these are trumped by one look Malkovich gives in a train's bathroom mirror shortly before he prepares to "go to work" on the gangsters who have been tailing him. The Talented Mr. Ripley, with its youthful protagonists and glamorous cast, was about nothing if not how beautiful murder could be, the aesthetics of killing. The Malkovich/Cavani version, based on one of Highsmith's later books, is no sucker for beauty - the Berlin scenes are overcast and drizzly, the Italian countryside nondescript - but theirs is nonetheless a very seductive film about what it means to get away with murder: more telling than anything is the fact we find Ripley heading into the male menopause while living la dolce vita and not rotting in prison. The conniving conviction of the character's logic is best expressed in a speech where he tells the picture-framer the only reason he'd get caught at school is that he never thought of killing his teachers; for a moment, this seems like the most logical idea in the world.

If the sense is of a film about getting away with murder which is itself getting away with murder, yes, Ripley's Game has its faults, but more often than not it compensates with an abundance of mordant wit, the performances of its two leading men, and the way it manages to preserve on celluloid some idea of what was on the page in the first place. Ripley knows what it is to be alone, truly alone, in the world, and the picture-framer comes to understand that his new-found friend has used him purely for the purposes of making another man know the true meaning of solitude; both book and film turn on an act of self-sacrifice, one death Ripley knows he won't be able to forget in a hurry - the final shot tilts slinkily, suggestively past the Italian girlfriend, to the tombs behind her, and then up to high-heaven itself. This is a film about knowing death, rather than just looking at it, and that's finally what makes Ripley's Game a smarter proposition than the Minghella Ripley, lifting it into the realms of a mainstream thriller a connoisseur like its hero - or Malkovich, one supposes - might rightfully savour.

(May 2003)

Ripley's Game screens on Channel 4 this Monday night at 1.40am.

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