The Talented Mr Ripley Review
’I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.’
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon)
Literary adaptations tend to fall into two distinct categories (and numerous sub-categories, which are far too dull to detail here.) The first are plodding faithful adaptations of the book, which are unlikely to offend the readers (unless it’s so badly done that it becomes a travesty). The second are the potentially more interesting, when a director takes a novel and then re-interprets it completely; of course, this can fail hideously, as in the case of Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky or Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, but can also work brilliantly well, as it does here and in Anthony Minghella’s earlier film of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where he skilfully adapted a virtually unfilmable book into a more coherent and dramatic narrative. Here, he does almost the opposite, taking an immensely readable but slightly two-dimensional thriller and finds depth, poignancy and wit in its portrayal of Tom Ripley, a figure who, in Minghella’s view, is an almost tragic character trying to cast off the shackles of his existence in favour of a more glamorous and exciting, if ultimately hollow, way of life.
The plot adheres to the novel’s storyline fairly closely, as Ripley (Damon) is mistaken for an old college friend of Dickie Greenleaf (Law) by Greenleaf’s wealthy father. Dickie has been living a life of wealthy dissolution in Italy with his girlfriend Marge (Paltrow), and Ripley is sent to retrieve him. However, once he has been drawn into Dickie’s world, he finds it difficult to move away, even if the consequences may well be fatal, or even worse. Meanwhile, Ripley is trying to work out how, exactly, he feels about Meredith (Blanchett), a glamorous society girl and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Davenport), a charming friend of Dickie’s.
One especially memorable review of the film on the Internet described this as a ‘horrible, horrible movie, and Matt Damon is batting for the other side’, an especially erudite piece of criticism that managed, nevertheless, to encapsulate a fair amount of the criticism levelled at the film when it was released, perhaps out of homophobia or simple ignorance. Minghella is rather more explicit about Ripley’s bisexuality than Patricia Highsmith, the original novelist, was, albeit in a context where Dickie appears to be sufficiently decadent to consider momentarily exploring different avenues, even as he has an enviable relationship with Marge; the film paints a vivid picture of a world where money and privilege are able to conceal moral vacuums, and where a man is able to get away with murder simply because he dresses presentably and talks with an educated accent.
It’s fascinating to watch such a British awareness of the class system permeating an apparently quintessentially American storyline, but Minghella’s intelligent script never forces the issue onto the film. Indeed, the film can be enjoyed purely on surface level as a fine piece of Hitchcockian drama, complete with tension-building scenes where it becomes apparent that Ripley will be unmasked; it is to Minghella’s credit that the film never becomes too high-blown in its ambitions, instead managing to maintain a steadily detached look at increasingly convoluted consequences, down to the bitterly ironic ending, which, unlike Highsmith’s novel, provides a satisfying close to Ripley’s actions.
The performances are all superb. Damon, in an atypical role, was widely criticised as being inadequately seductive for the demands of the part, but his slightly boy-next-door quality is here subverted extremely well, as he slowly descends into psychosis without any apparent qualms, until he has managed to lose everything. However, it’s Law who overshadows him, perfectly embodying someone who has to be likeable and loathsome, often at virtually the same time, encapsulating an attitude to life that intrigues even as it repels. Law has made consistently good films over the last decade (with the exceptions of Final Cut and Shopping), due to his willingness to appear in films with intelligent, literate scripts, and this is no exception. Perhaps inevitably, their characters overshadow the female parts; Paltrow is excellent as ever in a slightly thin role, simply because there isn’t enough time to show her character’s gradual decline from cheerfulness to vengeful loathing, but Blanchett is wonderful in a small role as the more benign counterpart to Ripley, a socialite attempting to escape into Italian bohemia; all paid for by Daddy, of course.
Technically, the film is superb. John Seale’s cinematography of Rome and Venice is utterly glorious, managing to bring both to life in a way that few recent films have managed; they are not portrayed as tourist meccas, but as vivid, real places, bringing a freshness to the storyline. Walter Murch’s editing is also top-notch, and Gabriel Yared’s score is far more effective than his overpraised work for The English Patient, feeling entirely in keeping with the use of jazz and opera on the soundtrack. Minghella has certainly moved on from his early work as a scriptwriter for Inspector Morse and the director of the low-key Truly, Madly, Deeply; his work here recalls what David Lean seemed to be capable of after Lawrence of Arabia had he not gone for broke with Dr Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter; namely, literate, intelligent pieces of large-scale filmmaking that still manage to keep a close eye on character delineation and motivation.
Ripley himself is a fascinating character; Wim Wenders adaptation, The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil and the upcoming Ripley’s Game, with the moderately inspired choice of John Malkovich as an older, more dissolute Ripley, have all looked at him with differing degrees of indulgence, even as they tend to abandon the precise mechanics of Highsmith’s frequently inspired plots. However, Minghella’s film may eventually prove to be the best cinematic representation of him. This film manages the virtually impossible task of being, simultaneously, a tense thriller, an intelligent character study, an operatic look at moral degradation and a wry comedy of manners; like Ripley, then, it is all things to all men. Unreservedly recommended.
For reasons doubtless best known to film companies, the film was released by Buena Vista in R2 and Paramount in America. However, the disc is almost exactly the same as the R1 version, even due to the transfer, which is a mixed bag. Colours are slightly washed-out looking in places, and there is some slight but irritating graininess; however, this is generally quite pleasing, with little edge enhancement or notable print damage, and the Italian vistas look glorious.
Nothing especially dynamic, but the 5.1 mix does a good job of showcasing the soundtrack’s mix of music, as well as using some low-key surround effects from time to time that manage to do an efficient job of suggesting Ripley’s surroundings. The dialogue is clear throughout, as you would expect.
Identical to the R1 version, the disc is mostly the usual EPK stuff, with one brilliant exception; Minghella’s commentary is among the best on a DVD to date. Eschewing pointless behind-the-scenes anecdotes, except when they are genuinely interesting (such as an anecdote about how a café scene with Paltrow and Davenport proved virtually impossible to film, as it was set in one of Rome’s most crowded squares), he concentrates on issues of character motivation, how he adapted the novel and what interested him in the story in the first place. If you prefer ‘hilarious’ stories of drunken ribaldry, this is unlikely to appeal to you, but if you’ve enjoyed the film sufficiently to be interested in an articulate, literate discussion of its themes and background, this is well worth a listen.
The other extras are far weaker. The making-of featurette and the soundtrack featurette have little of any real substance or information contained within, sticking instead to the tried and tested mixture of film clips and 'I play…’ generalisations, albeit with a touch more insight; this can, however, be put down to the cast’s intelligence, rather than some EPK hack’s searching questions. The trailers are more interesting than usual, showing how the film was marketed in America (as a thriller) and Europe (as a character study), and a couple of fairly pointless but entertaining ‘music videos’, which are little more than compilations of clips, round off the package. The absence of deleted scenes is a pain, given that around an hour of material was cut, but the excellent commentary makes up for them.
An excellent, and very underrated, film is presented on a pretty good disc with a superb commentary. Highly recommended for anyone who likes literate, intelligent filmmaking, which does indeed disprove the adage ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’. As long as we continue to have filmmakers of this calibre, they certainly do.