Written and directed by Anthony Minghella

The period detail is perfect. It's not merely that the jazz LPs spinning on turntables have the right logos for that year; it's that Minghella and his cinematographer, John Seale, have somehow captured the look of '50s Technicolor romances, even though that process is no longer in use. Minghella draws on Hitchcock as a model without ever lapsing into the sort of slavish, jokey homage that Brian De Palma would have done. Likewise, Gabriel Yared's score is subtly reminiscent of the romantic suspense music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock during the period.

But it's the performances that really carry Mr. Ripley. Anybody who has spent time with rich East Coast Ivy League types will recognize Dickie and Marge and their friends down to the smallest movement. Hoffman, in particular, manages an almost spooky re-creation of every arrogant preppie who hangs out in the Ivy League. We immediately understand why Tom falls for Dickie: Law radiates the sort of unconscious sense of entitlement that guys like Dickie are born with. Law's performance is charismatic enough to lift him to stardom, even though he's in less than half the film. (Curiously, this is the second film in his short career in which he plays someone whose identity is usurped; the other is Gattaca.)

The characters played by Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, as another Marge-like rich girl, are given less development by the script, precisely because that's all late-'50s culture would have allowed them. They may be smart, poised and well educated, but they're still programmed to settle down as gracious wives and little else.

Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is beautifully made in an old-Hollywood way
Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is beautifully made in an old-Hollywood way

Primarily it is Damon's picture: He's in nearly every scene, and the camera spends more time examining his face than it does on all the other characters combined. And that's where most of the story plays out. There's a stunning moment about halfway through when Tom's two lives collide. The panic in his eyes is understandable: With major prison time at stake, he's right to be terrified. But then we realize from his look that it's not the legal repercussions he fears; it's the social embarrassment. Doing hard time is trivial compared to the horror of being revealed for the nothing he truly is.

Opens Dec. 25.

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