Anthony Minghella's first film since his Oscar-winning The English Patient is another classy adaptation. This time round he's chosen writer Patricia Highsmith's first novel to feature creepy, compelling, social climbing schizo Tom Ripley. Highsmith provided the source for Hitchcock's wonderful Strangers On A Train, and this is a very similar psycho-logical thriller, involving social envy, repressed homosexuality, murder and a twisting plot which isn't so much a whodunit? as a willhegetawaywithit?
Although Ripley doesn't have the romantic sweep of The English Patient, it is just as visually impressive, the director having assembled many of the earlier film's crew, including cinematographer John Seale. It boasts a host of luxuriantly shot Italian locations - Rome, Venice, the islands of the Bay of Naples - which are encrusted with '50s details and overlaid with an intoxicating la dolce vita jazz soundtrack.
But none of this would be anything more than flash wrapping if the story and - since this is all about appearances - the characterisations didn't stand up. Thankfully, it's difficult to think of a better cast. Ripley is presented as someone who is not quite who he seems, who makes up his personality as he goes along, and would "rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody". Damon is a revelation, his initially unsure and physically unassuming Ripley a long way away from the cocky beefcake of Good Will Hunting. When challenged on the beach by Law's Adonis-alike Dickie on the paleness of his skin, Damon smilingly says: "This is an undercoat, a primer". Not just for a tan, we soon realise, but for another personality. He's positively chilling.
Law, too, will continue to see his star rise with this performance - he's as close to a '30s heartthrob as either Holly-wood or Britain now produce, and the two actors look similar enough - just - to make Tom's eventual impersonation convincing. Of the others, Paltrow copes well with the weakest role, but is outshone by last year's Oscar-rival, Blanchett, giving a rich cameo as an American tourist who falls for Tom/Dickie.
But there is a problem with the film. Perhaps because the novel is essentially a potboiler, Minghella is much more faithful to the plot than he was with The English Patient. As a result, the film wanes (just as it did in the novel) during Tom's protracted efforts to keep his ruse alive in the face of the police, the suspicious Marge and Dickie's bullish friend Freddie (played by Hoffman). Yet Minghella does make up for this by bravely changing the ending from the printed version. In so doing, he successfully adds a touch of pathos to the velvet-gloved violence that has gone before.