Ripley's Game (15)

Of mice and murderers
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The Independent Culture

The last time we saw Tom Ripley on screen he was played, with startling awkwardness, by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. How could Anthony Minghella have imagined that Damon's Iowa farm-boy demeanour was appropriate to Patricia Highsmith's psychopathic antihero? The character of Ripley requires from an actor social flexibility, sexual unease, a creepy charm and what one might call a central disfiguring resentment - Damon had none of them. Now, in Ripley's Game, it's John Malkovich's turn to try, and if this man can't be relied upon for creepy charm at least, then no one can.

Ripley is now older and a fair bit richer since the first book (Highsmith's novel, the third in the series, was published in 1974) but, reassuringly, he's no saner. Within five minutes he has beaten a man to death with a poker and walked off with a sheaf of priceless Renaissance drawings. Director Liliana Cavani and her co-writer Charles McKeown have updated the action to the present - this Ripley has a cellphone and does yoga - and shifted his domicile from the novel's Fontainebleau to the Veneto, where he has installed himself and his young wife Luisa (Chiara Caselli) in a sumptuous Palladian villa. Watching Malkovich wander around the baronial gloom briefly recalls his Gilbert Osman in The Portrait of a Lady (1997), another bored American aesthete looking to make mischief.

Highsmith's storyline, however, remains broadly intact. At a drinks party Ripley is insulted by Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), a British picture framer who deplores his money and lack of taste. From the steadiness of his gaze we sense that Tom will repay this little slight.

He gets his chance when Reeves (Ray Winstone), an old associate from the Berlin underworld, drops by one evening: "Didn't I ask you to never come near me?" Tom says evenly, to no apparent effect. Reeves has come to ask a favour: with the Russian mafia muscling in on his territory he needs an assassin who's completely unknown to dispose of a certain nasty piece of work. Ripley declines the job himself, but suggests that Jonathan, who he knows is dying of leukaemia, could be his man. Wanting to secure his family's well-being, Jonathan reluctantly agrees to do it, but instead of being freed by his blood money he finds himself ensnared in an evil more complicated than he had imagined.

Malkovich's confident reptilian languor in the title role is almost instantly impressive; it needs to be, too, because his British co-stars are found wanting. Winstone plays Reeves as an unregenerate yob, and there's comedy at first in the contrast between his loutishness and Malkovich's soft-spoken disdain. But Winstone's coke-head sniff and cockney locutions ("This scumbag is totally out of order") don't advance our understanding of his character, and we are given no sense of how he and Ripley became involved. Scott, even allowing for his character's terminal illness, gives an oddly strangulated performance and in one or two scenes ruins the mood with hysterical bursts of emoting.

He's also up against the memory of the great Bruno Ganz playing the role in Wim Wenders' 1977 film of the book, The American Friend, and whose melancholy features haunted the story so poignantly. For some reason Cavani drops the extraordinarily tense scene in which Ganz stalks his first victim through the Metro, replacing it with a perfunctory sidle-up-and-shoot inside the insect house of a zoo (and you groan at the clunking irony of a mafioso murdered while contemplating bugs and lice). Jonathan's transgression is the novel's focus of moral interest, the idea that an ordinary, decent man could be tempted into murder. Highsmith's thrillers are animated by this blurring of the normal and the criminal - Strangers on a Train was one of her most disquieting (and witty) expressions of it. Jonathan discovers in himself a capability he never suspected, and starts to behave in a strange, dislocated manner.

Cavani seems to understand this, for she remarks in the press notes: "It's as if Jonathan has discovered that he's daring; after many years he feels almost as if he's freed from his disease in that moment." But Scott's performance puts none of this on screen; insular before, he now looks insular and shifty, and it has the unfortunate consequence of making his wife (played by Lena Headey) the patsy. Headey, who often does good work with slight material - she was quietly remarkable as the lesbian suicide in Possession - is reduced to aiming peevish questions at her husband.

Cavani uses the locations impersonally, perhaps intending to transmit the impression of contented estrangement: Highsmith, like Ripley, was an American living in Europe. The film mooches around Berlin in a few scenes, though it could be almost anywhere, and the town in northern Italy where Jonathan works is unspecified (Padua? Vicenza?).

This anonymity is exactly suited to Ripley, who belongs nowhere but has a habit of cropping up everywhere, like the Berlin-Dusseldorf express on which the pivotal sequence of the film is set. This is the moment we realise that Ripley has had second thoughts about his "game" and wants to extricate Jonathan from Reeves's blackmailing. It's also the moment we should sense a psychological bonding between Jonathan and Ripley, who understands the impulse to kill and takes pity on this hapless apprentice, but all that emerges from it is a black farce, and a message: if you have to murder someone, don't try garrotting them on a moving train. (It would have been more in keeping with Ripley's whimsical spirit if he had explained to Jonathan precisely how to use a garrotte.)

Ripley's Game has its moments, and in Malkovich it has the amoral cunning and improvisation of Highsmith's creature down to a T. But the apprehensive atmosphere of the novel has gone missing along with its twisted psychology. No one would dispute that Ripley is a talented soloist, but he needs better support to get this game off the ground.