Though atmospheric, rich in visual style and containing some excellent acting performances, the late Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley is not without its critics. A thriller that attempts to flutter its eyelashes at both mainstream cinema audiences and the arthouse set, it probably disappoints both crowds equally, although there is still much to admire in this tale of forged identity and murder.
While it isn’t Minghella’s finest hour, it is perhaps his most striking: mention of the film’s name instantly conjures up images of the glistening azure Tyrrhenian Sea and the sun-kissed towns that overlook it, as well as opulent Roman and Venetian interiors and the oft-seen touristic locations of those cities. The grandiose and wealthy young characters are all kitted out with ivy league clothes, but many have a stylish Italian twist, and the costume design earned Ann Roth and Gary Jones an Oscar nomination. There are smoky jazz bars, café terraces with sweeping views and scooter-filled streets that recall the nighttime buzz of La Dolce Vita. Put simply, the film looks very good indeed, its style timeless: the preppy mid-20th Century Mediterranean look has even made a comeback in the UK in recent years.
Tom Ripley is the villain / anti-hero of the piece, a New York sociopath whose main talents are forgery and impersonation. A misunderstanding by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) lands the deceitful Tom (Matt Damon) the job of tracking down Herbert’s wayward son Dickie (Jude Law), who has based himself in Italy with fiancée Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). Herbert, mistakenly believing that Tom knows Dickie from Princeton, pays Tom’s travel and expenses and offers him a further $1,000 – a hefty sum for the 1950s, the decade in which The Talented Mr Ripley is set – if he can persuade Dickie to come back to the USA. (It’s interesting to note, given everything that subsequently happens, that Ripley’s mission requires him to develop a certain duplicity in the first place, which is enhanced by Herbert’s encouragement.)
As he arrives in Italy Tom meets Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), another young wealthy socialite, and tells her that he is in fact Dickie Greenleaf, stating later that it is ‘better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody’. Before long he locates Dickie and Marge and lies to them, suggesting he met the bemused Dickie at college, before using ingratiation to befriend the pair; soon enough he ends up living comfortably at Dickie’s expense as a guest. Dickie’s friendship blows hot and cold, as does his devotion to Meredith, and the relationships between the three are sometimes strained as a result, especially when Tom begins to develop feelings for Dickie and Marge begins to resent Tom’s presence and the lack of attention she receives. Suspicion surrounding Tom’s motives increases, particularly when Dickie’s astute and confident friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shows up.
Ripley does not naturally fit in with this crowd, and Minghella focuses on the character’s awkwardness, which is particularly well-realised in a scene where Tom is forced to sing along onstage to a song he doesn’t know very well (if at all). The threat of discovery, of being revealed as a charlatan, hangs over Tom at all times and it provides nearly all of the film’s tension. However, gradually he learns how to behave and how to carry himself around this perma-holidaying bunch, and when the opportunity presents itself he assumes Dickie’s identity in order to enjoy the lifestyle of a wealthy young man in Rome himself. As the net closes in on him, though, he is forced to take extreme action in order to keep his secret.
After the production design, the second most striking element of The Talented Mr Ripley is the cinematography. Minghella incorporates a number of shots that help to establish the film’s themes of hidden secrets and dual personas, and I lost count of the amount of mirrors that appear, which often highlight the fragmented nature of the main characters (and not just Tom Ripley, either). In one scene Dickie catches Tom trying on his clothes for size and the embarrassed Ripley dives behind the rear of a mirror to protest his innocence, with only his head visible and the reflection of Dickie’s entire body in plain sight. ‘I wish you’d get out of my clothes,’ says Dickie, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaits him. (Later on, when the net is closing in on the murderous Ripley, there is another striking image when we see his reflection in a piano; as he leans back the reflection splits, which tells us in no uncertain terms that Ripley is shedding the ‘Dickie’ persona he has been using and is returning to being Tom and Tom alone in order to evade capture. There are many ingenious shots like this in Minghella’s film.)
The photography by John Seale, who also worked with Minghella on The English Patient (and, after this, Cold Mountain), manages to maintain a focus on the principal characters even though they are often framed with glorious backgrounds in plain view. His work here is impressive, especially with regard to the gradual shifts of the colour palette and the lighting, moving slowly from sun-blasted blues and beiges to a washed out, grey-skied sunless ending.
By this point the character Ripley has supposedly fallen in love with – Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsley – is also keeping his true nature hidden, with his sexuality very much a private matter (none of the men in Highsmith’s story are what they seem; Miles must also keep his sexual preferences under wraps, Dickie is having a secret affair and has impregnated a local Italian woman and Herbert’s success as a businessman masks his own failure as a father). While Peter’s musical tastes are more in line with Tom’s own than Dickie’s were, the relationship between the two never really convinces, perhaps because sufficient time isn’t allotted to its development. As such the film’s ending feels botched, lacking the dramatic impact it is clearly supposed to have. Similarly, Meredith’s infatuation with Tom never quite feels right, despite the best efforts of the talented Blanchett. The credibility of the story gradually slips away the longer the film goes on as a result.
Damon, who is onscreen for most of the film, plays Ripley well enough, his glances and false smiles effectively revealing the character’s complexity to the audience, as well as the presence of an inner thought system that we can but guess at. Ripley knows how to act in the situations he finds himself in – or learns very quickly – and Damon is very good at suggesting that the character isn’t genuinely feeling any of the emotions or thoughts he publicly expresses.
Unfortunately his thunder is stolen by the magnetic Law, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year thanks to this breakthrough performance. A head of steam is built up while Law is on screen, and when his role in the film ends there’s a considerable gap in The Talented Mr Ripley that isn’t subsequently filled. Damon’s character, however, is presumably far more difficult to get exactly right. You could argue that Jude Law benefitted to an extent from the fact that Dickie is the more attractive part, the character who is wired into the jazzy 1950s Italian playboy lifestyle, whereas Damon is forced to jar with everything in order to portray Ripley accurately: the other actors, the setting, the idyllic lifestyles lived by rich, carefree youth and the flow and rhythm of Italian life. It’s as if the character is at odds with his own story, and if that was actually the intention Damon’s performance should be viewed in a new light.
This is a good ensemble cast – most of them promising actors at the time as opposed to the established names of today – and Paltrow also impresses as Marge, unleashing more and more (plausible) histrionics as her frustration surrounding Dickie’s appearance – not to mention her suspicion of Tom as a killer – grows. Her charitable warmth towards Tom at the start is convincing, as is her coldness and hatred at the end. Meanwhile Hoffman, that great, great lost talent, dominates his few scenes with such presence that even the charismatic Law must play second fiddle when they are on-screen together.
Plenty of elements come together successfully in Minghella’s film that point to a successful suspense thriller: the acting, the production design, the cinematography, the plethora of loaded lines in the screenplay that cause a wry smirk or ten; yet there’s something intangible missing, and I can’t quite decide what that is. It may be the pacing, as the film sags a little in the middle and the ending feels rushed. Its critics feel that Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon), the original adaptation of Highsmith’s novel that starred Alain Delon as Ripley, is the better film, wasting no time as it begins with Ripley and ‘Philippe’ Greenleaf as established friends. Highsmith’s novel differs from both adaptations, containing an ending where Ripley ends up inheriting Dickie’s fortune thanks to a forged will, but the character feels a greater sense of paranoia and is concerned about the future. Damon once suggested he wished Minghella’s film could be made again with the same cast but as a faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s novel. Maybe that would have been better, but this is still a well-made thriller with an intriguingly creepy villain who, unusually for mainstream cinema, gets away with murder.
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Written by: Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Minghella
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport
Running Time: 142 minutes