|The Talented Mr. Ripley
Even before he turned his attentions to the Oscar-winning THE ENGLISH PATIENT,
playwright Anthony Minghella had been commissioned to adapted Patricia Highsmith's
psychological thriller THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. After spending so long cracking the
dense fiction and finding a key to the main character, Minghella was reluctant to turn the
script over to another filmmaker. With the success of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, he was
able to pick whatever project he wanted, so it comes as no surprise he opted for Ripley.
Although the material had previously been adapted to film in 1960 as PLEIN SOLEIL or
PURPLE NOON with Alain Delon (ironically Martin Scorsese sponsored a re-release of
that film in the 1990s), the screenwriter-director was undaunted. Putting his own spin on the
material, he softened the central character a bit, fleshed out others, and even created a new
one not found in Highsmith's original (Meredith, played by Cate Blanchett).
As with any film that carries a pedigree, Minghella's adaptation has its partisans and
its critics. In taking Highsmith's latent homoeroticism and making it more flagrant, he has
incurred the wrath of some gay groups who object to what they perceive as a negative
character. Personally, I think they are missing the point. They seem to forget that the story
is set in the 1950s, still a repressive time, and Tom Ripley (deftly portrayed against type
by Matt Damon) is presented as emotionally immature. He is a young man in search of
himself, one who is seeking someone -- anyone -- to validate him. That he misplaces those
feelings and that they lead to what can only be called a crime of passion is his tragedy. The
audience is asked to identify with this confused person and then watch as he commits
one heinous act after another.
At one point in the film, Ripley says he always felt it was better to be a fake somebody
than a real nobody and that is his motivation. He covets a better life. When the film opens,
he is living in squalor, working as an attendant in a men's room and moonlighting as a piano
player. Through a chance encounter and an incorrect assumption, he finds himself offered
the chance of a lifetime: an all-expenses paid trip to Italy with the goal of convincing the
scion of a wealthy shipping family to return home. Of course, he jumps at it and soon finds
that the name of the rich and powerful is all one needs to impress some.
Tom Ripley also has a gift for mimicry and forgery and those eventually will come in handy.
Once he has accepted the assignment, Ripley sets about learning as much as he can about
his target -- Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law in a terrific turn). In Italy, he infiltrates the lives of
Dickie and Dickie's girlfriend, another American expatriate, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth
Paltrow) and even confesses the true nature of why he is there, to persuade Dickie to return
to the United States. As Greenleaf showers attention on Ripley and welcomes him into his
home, Ripley begins to become infatuated with both Dickie and his lifestyle. Greenleaf is
essentially a bounder and wastrel (he is cheating on Marge with a local shop girl). Among
his other sins is being careless. He is often telling Tom to feel free to borrow shirts or
other articles of attire yet when he comes home one time and finds Ripley trying on some
of his dress clothes, Greenleaf exhibits an angry side. As with everything and everyone
in his circle (including Marge), Dickie soon tires of Tom and excoriates him for taking
money from Greenleaf's father. On one last excursion, things take a decidedly deadly turn
which sets off a cat-and-mouse game that plays out for the remainder of the film.
Minghella has carefully cast the film and each of the leading roles is filled to perfection.
Cate Blanchett makes a relatively brief role memorable. As a slightly flighty socialite who
takes a shine to Tom (who introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf), she is heartbreakingly
on target, particularly as she confesses her feelings. Gwyneth Paltrow channels the spirit
of Grace Kelly, the cool blonde who is more aware than others think. Jude Law turns Dickie
into a star-making turn. For years, Law has been on the verge of breaking through and
finally has found the role that should catapult him to the ranks of leading man. He is perfect
as the charismatic playboy who harbors a cruel streak. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and
James Rebhorn, as a society friend of Dickie's and Dickie's father, respectively, capture
the blasé manner of the wealthy while Jack Davenport adds a dash of charm as a gay man
with more than a passing interest in Tom Ripley.
The film, however, succeeds or fails on the performance of Ripley. Minghella cast the
all-American golden boy Matt Damon against type and the risk pays off. It is jarring at first
to see Damon in the role but he gradually wins over the audience and delivers a multi-layered
portrait of a troubled man with psychopathic tendencies. Those who have embraced
PURPLE NOON may have trouble accepting this adaptation, but there is room for both
takes on the novel. In truth, neither film is exactly faithful to the letter of Highsmith's work but
each explores the spirit of the fiction in fascinating ways. Minghella has once again proven
that he is an expert at adapting difficult material to the screen. Working again with
Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale and Oscar-winner costume designer Ann Roth,
he has created a sun-drenched, handsome production. I would have to rank
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY as one of the best films of 1999, even perhaps of the decade.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and brief nudity
Running time: 139 mins.
|© 2006 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.