Dir: Liliana Cavani. It-UK. 2002. 112mins.

Liliana Cavani, the veteran Italian director, was presumably brought in to direct this Patricia Highsmith novel in the hope that some of the dark menace of her drama The Night Porter might rub off on Ripley. If so, then the gamble has failed, at least visually: Cavani and her Night Porter cinematographer, Alfio Contini, take few risks in translating storyboard to screen, shooting Ripley's Game with the flat tedium of a TV drama. But for all its lack of style there's something compelling about the excursion, and about John Malkovich's camped-up version of Tom Ripley, which catches the cold and faintly ghoulish spirit of Highsmith more accurately than did The Talented Mr Ripley. That said, Ripley's Game is likely to enjoy a healthier life on TV than in the cinema, with its TV production values better suited to the small screen. After the film's out-of-competition slot at Venice, Fine Line Features will release it in the US on April 4 next year, while Entertainment will distribute in the UK.

Twenty years after his Talented debut, Tom Ripley has settled down to an easy life in the Veneto region of Italy. He collects beautiful objects, including a young, harpsichord-playing girlfriend (Caselli, an unchallenging performance in an unchallenging role). When Reeves (Winstone) - a former criminal partner from Ripley's art collecting 'adventures' - arrives from Berlin, asking Ripley to help rub out a business rival, he refuses. But he comes up with an alternative candidate: Englishman Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), a happily married but terminally ill middle-class picture framer, who badmouthed Ripley at a party. The psychodrama really kicks in here, as the bored and jaded Ripley savours the challenge of turning an unassuming family man into a hired killer.

A sackful of precedents sits precariously in this film's luggage rack: not just Patricia Highsmith's book, but its previous cinematic adaptation, Wim Wenders' austerely auterish The American Friend. Then there is Highsmith's previous book in the series, The Talented Mr Ripley, which spawned Rene Clement's masterful Plein Soleil and Anthony Minghella's popular but superficial second attempt. Cavani deals with the pressure of precedent by completely ignoring it - though a little more cinematic awe and gravitas might not have been a bad thing.

Malkovich comes close to parody in the icy hauteur of his Tom Ripley, who is but a raised eyebrow away from the coolly seductive monsters of evil the actor played in Dangerous Liaisons and Portrait Of A Lady. Making him wear a flat cap back to front doesn't help, but Malkovich instinctively pulls back from the brink of laughter and ends up being one of the reasons to continue watching.

Scott's over-anguished performance is more in line with the film's TV drama framing and lighting style (not to mention production design: the messy knick-knackery of the Trevanny home proves the maxim that a room has to look good on screen, not just be right for the character). But the relationship between the two leads does at least develop interestingly, as Ripley warms to his awkward protege without really becoming any less amoral. Full marks for faithfulness to the spirit of Highsmith; four out of 10 for great cinema.

Prod cos: Cattleya, Baby Films
Int'l sales:
Fine Line
Ileen Maisel, Simon Bosanquet, Ricardo Tozzi
Charles McKeown, Cavani, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Alfio Contini
Prod des:
Francesco Frigeri
Jon Harris
Ennio Morricone
Main cast:
John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Ray Winstone, Lena Heady, Chiara Caselli