The Talented Mr Ripley - A Retrospective

The Talented Mr Ripley - A Retrospective

This is the first in a series of occasional pieces about films, books, albums and other artistic media that I either didn't write about when they first appeared or predate the life of this blog. I make no apologies for grand, sweeping statements, or for statements that might contradict what I've written elsewhere.

It's widely accepted, and rightly, that the period between 1999-2000 was something of an annus mirabilis for cinema. While the mega-hyped first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, might have been a massive disappointment, an entire wave of interesting, challenging films popped up at the end of the millennium, such as Fight Club, Magnolia, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix and many more. (Ironically the one that eventually won Best Film at the Oscars, American Beauty, has aged considerably less well than the others.)

Yet the film that I think is probably the greatest of them all is probably the least flashy, devoid of 'ta-da!' twists, spectacular visual effects and brain-warping conceits. Instead, it's a remarkably simple, classically written, acted, directed and edited piece of cinema that derives most of its considerable power and interest from the talent of all of those involved. For some, it remains a high watermark in their careers; for others, it's still a considerable piece of work, and one that they should be proud of.

For all that, it's not been regarded as particularly seminal or important within the context of American film. It was memorably mocked in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back as 'that gay serial killer film', but it didn't win any Oscars, won a BAFTA for Jude Law probably more out of BAFTA's desire to reward home-grown talent than necessarily because of its innate merit, and did decent but unspectacular business at the box office. Compared to Anthony Minghella's previous film, The English Patient (9 Oscars and countless other awards) it might have been seen by some as a bit of a disappointment.

Yet the first hints of a reappraisal came in 2008, when Anthony Minghella died at the untimely age of 54. Virtually every obituary decided that it was The Talented Mr Ripley, rather than The English Patient or Cold Mountain, that was his true legacy to cinema, and indeed since then the film's cool beauty and fierce intelligence have continued to attract admirers. Not bad given the original reception it had, when critics (with a few notable exceptions) seemed vaguely bemused by it; Peter Bradshaw described it in the Guardian as 'a dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study', and James Bernadelli compared it entirely unfavourably to the earlier adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, Plein Soleil. But some saw its merits straight away, with Roger Ebert giving the film 4 out of 4 stars and saying 'the movie is as intelligent a thriller as you'll see all year'.

Of course, Anthony Minghella's career is one of the most gratifyingly odd in cinema. He began his life as an academic and expert in Samuel Beckett, and then moved into a career as a scriptwriter and script editor on such programmes as Inspector Morse and Grange Hill. His debut proper, Truly, Madly, Deeply was a charming, low-budget meditation on grief that ended up winning him the BAFTA for best screenplay. His Hollywood debut, Mr Wonderful, wasn't a hit or particularly regarded by critics, but The English Patient still holds up today as an example of an literate yet sweeping epic, unafraid to tempt comparisons to David Lean which are, by and large, justified. After Ripley, Cold Mountain was an ambitious, often successful return to the world of epic filmmaking, and Breaking & Entering was a hand-wringing drama about immigration and burglary that attracted little real affection. He was a tireless figure in the worlds not just of film (Chairman of the BFI) but of opera and even politics, directing Labour's 2005 party political broadcast.

Something else about Minghella that every film of his boasts is his intelligence. Even Breaking And Entering offers a script that doesn't provide pat, easy answers to the dilemmas that it poses, and what's so refreshing about his pictures is the sense of the academic mind behind the studio facade, needling and demanding deeper, even harder answers than the ones necessarily being offered by pat happy endings and conventional three-act structures. Ripley, one of the smartest mainstream films ever made, is that rare beast that not only doesn't insult one's intelligence, but actively solicits an intellectual response as visceral as the emotional one at every point.

As with The English Patient, it differs considerably from its source. The central plot - Tom Ripley is sent to Italy by a shipping magnate to retrieve his ne'er-do-well son, Dickie Greenleaf, but Ripley ends up murdering him and assuming his identity - remains the same as Highsmith's novel, but while the original book is witty, wonderfully amoral jazz, Minghella's film is a statelier, sadder and more operatic view of what it means to gain the world and lose one's soul - or, as Ripley puts it, 'I always thought it'd be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody'.

Such a statement is heartbreakingly misguided, and it's to Matt Damon's immense credit that he manages to convey every nuance of Minghella's version of Tom Ripley. As an adaptation of the character that Highsmith wrote, it's probably unlikely to appeal to purists, who should watch Malkovich's brilliantly controlled murderer in Ripley's Game or Alain Delon's smooth charmer in Plein Soleil. For Highsmith, Ripley was a brilliant blank, a man able to improvise his way out of a situation as if he was taking part in a jazz recital, and clearly no stranger to the world of petty crime (or worse) at the start of the novel. For Minghella, Ripley is someone altogether more complex, a man whose dishonesty and ability to adopt other personae stems at least in part from the fact that he doesn't appear to have any identity, any ties or any loyalty to anyone or anything. He's a modestly talented musician, but it's hinted that even these talents will end up being frustrated because of his inability to feel anything, other than a certain acquired technical proficiency.

What's so marvellous about Damon's performance throughout, and makes much more sense now that he's become such a respected character actor, is that he perfectly conveys the slightest sense that his sojourn with Dickie and Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) has become to humanise him. The obvious imputation is that he's sexually attracted to the handsome, charismatic Dickie, and the film certainly makes few bones about his tentative homosexual advances, most notably in a bath scene that might even hint for a moment that Dickie himself considers dabbling in unfamiliar waters. But in a sense, Ripley's attraction to Dickie and Marge is less that of an opportunistic voyeur and more that of a man surprised to find himself with a friend, perhaps for the first time in his life. In a scene when Dickie and Ripley are walking through a galleria together, Dickie puts his arm round Ripley, in a careless gesture of affection, and Ripley beams with pure delight at what might be one of the few moments of physical contact he's ever had that hasn't been accompanied by a blow or a threat.

Of course, Dickie Greenleaf isn't exactly the full shilling himself. Someone once said of Jude Law that he's a great character actor who had the misfortune to be born into the looks and body of a matinee idol, and the great uncertainty that followed his early, star-making roles perhaps stems from this incongruity in his personality. For, make no mistake, Dickie is an absolute shit. Charming, of course, and handsome to a fault, he's also wildly inconsistent, untrustworthy and petulant. Used to getting whatever he wants because of his father's trust fund and his obvious appeal to the opposite sex, he is initially amused by Ripley, but soon tires of him, preferring the company of fellow wealthy sybarite Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Just about everyone's known a Dickie at some point in their lives, the glamorous girl or boy who you've wanted to impress and become friends with, only to realise how desperately shallow they are when you reach their inner circle. Everyone who's ever desperately tried to cling to the hem of 'celebrity' by appearing on a talent show, or by sleeping with a footballer, or doing some other degrading and tawdry thing, should be shown Law's excellent portrayal of Dickie and asked 'Do you really want to end up like him?' Ironically, of course, in light of some of the more tawdry revelations about Law's personal life that later emerged, he might have been wise to heed his own Dorian Gray-esque portrayal of corrupted beauty.

After Ripley murders Dickie in a moment that combines extremes of affection and hatred - the moment when he cradles Dickie's head after he's bashed it in with an oar is a uniquely disturbing touch - the film changes pace and genre, moving from a character study-cum-black comedy of manners to a more conventional crime drama. There's enough of Highsmith's original plotting kept intact to make this a more than satisfying Hitchcockian thriller, especially as Ripley finds himself flitting between his own, increasingly unwelcome identity and that of Dickie, sometimes virtually simultaneously, while the suspicions of Dickie's abandoned girlfriend Marge grow. Paltrow is remarkably strong as Marge, beginning the film as the sort of cheerful, faux-bohemian expat that Fitzgerald might have lightly satirised, and ending it as a distraught and distinctly wiser figure.

Interestingly, Ripley's grand scheme is seen through by several characters without much difficulty. He's only saved from arrest and imprisonment - something that he at one point believes is inevitable - by a deus ex machina replacement of the investigating officer, a dramatically necessary but oddly unsatisfying moment. Yet Marge certainly realises from an early point that Ripley's hardly the full shilling, but, in her laid-back and bohemian way, she's happy to accept him anyway. Likewise, the loathsome Freddie Miles, himself unblessed by physical charms but no doubt similarly wealthy, sizes up Ripley as a fake more or less immediately, never losing an opportunity to belittle and dismiss him. There's a great scene late in the film when Miles goes to see Dickie/Ripley, and slowly begins to realise what's going on, a revelation followed in short order by his murder. Oddly enough, it's the only moment of violence in the film where we're really cheering Ripley on, in no small part due to the splendidly unctuous and insinuating performance that Seymour Hoffman gives.

Of course, Ripley's doomed, in both the book and in the film. Highsmith chooses to end the novel (the first in a series collectively known as the Ripliad) with Ripley a wealthy man, having profited handsomely from his deceptions and connivances, but paranoid and convinced that he will be yet be exposed. Minghella, however, has a bleaker and more all-enveloping fate in store for Ripley, and it involves the expansion of a character mentioned only in passing in the book, Peter Smith-Kingsley. Played, charmingly and warmly, by Jack Davenport, Peter is the only person to have ever genuinely cared about Ripley, and his reward for this is to be Ripley's last victim, murdered because it's the only means of maintaining Ripley's bogus identity as Dickie Greenleaf, with the possibility of a subsequent romantic entanglement with Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett - oh, what a cast it has!). Minghella chooses to play the final lines of dialogue over a chilling image of Ripley sitting on a bed, presumably after he returns from dumping Peter's body overboard on the boat that they're sailing on, and realising that, far from becoming 'a fake somebody', that he's destined to remain a real nobody all his life, no matter how many people he cons into thinking otherwise.

It's both bracingly bleak and entirely true to the characters that Minghella has recreated, and it's the perfect end to what has to be regarded, ultimately, as one of the strongest films of its kind ever made. Its appeal has grown, and audiences who might once have dismissed 'the gay serial killer film' out of hand have started to reassess it. In an amusing piece of irony, it was originally released on Christmas Day, 1999. A more unusual Christmas present is hard to imagine, but the film's style, black wit and operatic complexity have very much proved themselves to be the gift that keeps on giving.


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