“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody rather than a real nobody.”
Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s initial Ripley novel wasn’t the first attempt to put her character of Tom Ripley on film but it is certainly the most well known and probably the best. In fact Ripley’s earliest appearance on screen was in 1960 in the French film Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) which was an adaptation of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and starred Alain Delon as Ripley. After that Wim Wenders adapted ‘Ripley’s Game’ as the film The American Friend in 1977 with none other than Dennis Hopper in the Ripley role. Ripley’s Game was subsequently remade in 2002, after the success of Minghella’s film, with John Malkovich in the title role. In 2005 there was one final adaptation based on the novel Ripley Under Ground with Barry Pepper in the role but it remains Minghella’s film that is best remembered by cinema goers.
Following the success of The English Patient, Anthony Minghella chose The Talent Mr. Ripley to be his next directorial project after the producer Sydney Pollack had initially hired him to adapt the novel into a screenplay. Minghella felt an affinity for the material in part because one of his early plays had, in a review, actually been compared to the work of Highsmith. As a son of Italian immigrants he was also attracted to the Italian locations and Italian films of the late 1950s as well as a love for jazz during that period. To help him bring his vision of Ripley to life Minghella turned to many of his collaborators on The English Patient, especially John Seale as cinematographer, Walter Murch who is once again both editor and sound designer and Gabriel Yared who wrote the score.
However Minghella felt he couldn’t make the film unless he found an actor who could embody the complex role of Tom Ripley. Whilst the film version of Ripley would differ somewhat from the one found in the books, the character is still a difficult part, combining elements of sociopath, killer and conman with an ambiguous sexuality. After seeing Good Will Hunting Minghella realised that Matt Damon was such an actor, who could bring an intelligence to the role as well as a willingness to portray an unsympathetic character. Damon’s star was on the rise when the film was shot in 1998, so it was brave of him to accept such a challenging and possibly alienating role. Damon certainly rewards his director with a wonderfully unsettling performance, making Ripley appear charming, manipulative and at times disturbing. His obsessive attention of Dickie Greenleaf reminds one of Damon’s friend (and brother of Ben) Casey Affleck’s remarkable performance as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Casting the aforementioned Dickie Greenleaf was key to the success of the film because everyone in the film is either obsessed with or wants to be him. It is best explained by Gwyneth Paltrow who says at one point in the film, “when you have Dickie’s attention it’s like you’re the only person in the world and that’s why everyone loves him so much”. For Dickie, Minghella chose Jude Law, another up and coming actor at the time who has since gone on to greater things. Minghella felt that a British actor could capture the attitude of America’s Ivy League elite better than an actual American and Law’s incredible good looks probably didn’t hurt either. Law is superb in the role and really captures the essence of Dickie, both the fun irresistible part and also his darker and crueler side. He would be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor and would win a BAFTA for the same category.
Minghella clearly had an eye for talent as the rest of the cast is made up of equally impressive actors who have since gone on to greater fame and glory. In the role of Marge, Dickie’s long suffering girlfriend, Minghella cast Gwyneth Paltrow and although she would actually win her Best Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love during filming, Minghella chose her because she had a wonderful air of sophistication and breeding. Whilst her’s is a less obvious role than the two male leads it is interesting to watch her transformation from care free and innocent to uptight and suspicious as the plot develops. For the relatively small role of Meredith, Minghella cast the then unknown Cate Blanchett, although she would be nominated as Best Actress for Elizabeth during production, ultimately losing out to Paltrow. The role of Meredith is a character that isn’t in the novel but Minghella was so impressed by Blanchett that he increased the size of the role during filming. Another small but key role was that of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s who immediately sees through Ripley and for this part Minghella cast Philip Seymour Hoffman. Finally Minghella cast British actor Jack Davenport as Peter Smith-Kingsley, another character who isn’t in the book but would form an important relationship with Ripley in the last third of the film.
Apart from Minghella and his cast and crew, there were two other vital components to the film, the music and the country of Italy itself. Music is used to both define the characters and drive the plot and is therefore an important part of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The character of Ripley prefers classical music and is very specific and calculating as a person, whereas Dickie loves jazz and is as free-form and unpredictable as the musicians he adores. Both lead actors learnt musical instruments for their roles, with Damon playing the piano and Law playing the saxophone; Damon even sings a passable ‘My Funny Valentine’ at one point. Minghella assembled a number of great modern jazz musicians to record music and Gabriel Yared does a wonderful job of combining the jazzy numbers with his own symphonic score. There are some very entertaining scenes set in jazz clubs as Dickie draws Ripley into his world, although at times the film borders on becoming a live action version of The Artistocats.
The second key component is Italy itself and there are times when you wonder if Minghella was on a commission from the Italian tourist board. From the seaside locations to Rome and Venice, Italy has never looked more beautiful on film, even if according to Minghella the weather wasn’t very cooperative. In his commentary Minghella also mentions that whilst it is easy to write ‘Ripley is on his own by the Spanish Steps’ it is a lot more difficult to actually film such a scene in the middle of a busy capital city. Whatever the obstacles Minghella succeeds in conjuring up 1950s Italy with serenading priests, beautiful women and groups of men lounging around in cafes. The world the film creates is of course not meant to be realistic, what Minghella is actually doing is recreating the Italian movies of the late fifties such as La Dolce Vita. In this sense he succeeds remarkably well with the beautiful cast, production design, locations and music all combining to not only seduce Ripley but also yourself - before you know it you’re smoking a cigarette, sipping an espresso and zooming off on a scooter.
With almost all the film shot on location in Italy there were only a small number of scenes filmed in a studio and as with The English Patient, Minghella used Cinecitta Studios just outside Rome. Due to budgetary constraints he originally shot the opening New York segment of the film on a small studio set at Cinecitta but during editing realised that we needed to see more of Ripley’s world before going to Italy and so they ended up shooting some additional scenes in New York itself. It is here that the film deviates from the novel because in the movie Ripley’s life in New York is never really covered whereas in the novel he is already a conman. When in the movie Dickie asks Ripley what his talent is, he replies “forging signatures, telling lies and impersonating practically anybody” but it is never stated explicitly that he is a conman back in New York. In fact the film softens the character somewhat, with the events being set in motion by a misunderstanding rather manipulation on the part of Ripley. Of course Ripley does manipulate Dickie and Marge once he arrives in Italy but his motives seem to be driven more by his infatuation with Dickie rather than maliciousness or greed. It is only after Dickie casts Ripley aside - fittingly whilst the two are in a boat - that events take a turn for the tragic.
Spoiler Warning: In fact Ripley’s murder of Dickie is partly out of self-defence and everything that follows is mostly an attempt to cover his tracks. Of course Ripley takes on Dickie’s identity when in Rome but the inspiration for this comes from someone mistaking him for Dickie rather than any premeditated plan to steal Dickie’s money. In fact Ripley’s motivation stems from his desire for Dickie’s lifestyle or rather Ripley’s version of Dickie’s lifestyle rather than material gain. Unlike Dickie’s more cavalier, elite and jazz inspired lifestyle, Ripley’s version is one of classical music, order and - as Freddie puts it at one point - ‘bourgeois’ tastes. Ripley is the quintessential outsider with his nose pressed against the glass and being called bourgeois is the worst insult that Freddie could use. Freddie knows from the start that Ripley isn’t from the same social class and it is telling that once Freddie begins to suspect him, Ripley kills Freddie with his recently purchased bust of the emperor Hadrian.The bust is an example of Ripley’s bourgeois tastes but it is also a sly nod to the fact that Hadrian loved another man.
This brings us to the most controversial aspect of the film, that of Ripley’s sexuality. In the books it is suggested that Ripley is at least bi-sexual but more likely homosexual and the film is equally as ambiguous. Minghella himself seemed to feel that Ripley was infatuated with Dickie in a non-sexual way, having been seduced by Dickie’s lifestyle and personality. In a sense everyone is in love with Dickie and therefore Ripley’s obsession is hardly unique. However there are some homoerotic undertones to certain scenes between Ripley and Dickie and Ripley’s relationship with Peter later in the film seems to be explicitly homosexual. Peter is a classical musician who accepts Ripley for who he is and their relationship seems to be based on mutual affection. In fact Ripley doesn’t seem interested in women at all, except out of expediency such as in his relationship with Meredith. As mentioned earlier Meredith isn’t a character in the novel but she plays a vital role in the film, often popping up an inopportune moments. In many ways Meredith is the complete opposite of Ripley because she is a somebody pretending to be a nobody in contrast to his nobody pretending to be a somebody. It is her appearance at the end that precipitates Ripley’s final murder, once again out of necessity and robbing him of a chance for happiness. Spoiler End
Whatever your ultimate interpretation of the film there is no mistaking the quality that is on display here. Every aspect of the film from the cast to the screenplay to the direction to the locations to the design oozes beauty, taste and intelligence. In fact the film is as cultured and well bred as the people whose lives it reveals to us and equally as seductive. The first half of the film is great fun, starting from the credit sequence - which deliberately reminds you of both the sleeves of jazz records and the work of Saul Bass - and leading up to the murder. The second half of the film is much more of a thriller and there is a great deal of tension as Ripley weaves his web of deception and the police seem to be closing in. In fact it is a credit to Damon’s performance that you even find yourself sympathising with Ripley despite the abhorrent nature of his crimes. Sadly of all the deaths associated with Ripley, the one that is most difficult to accept is that of the film’s director. At the end of two hours of sophisticated and intelligent filmmaking, the person you miss the most is The Talented Mr. Minghella.
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