The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) Directed by Anthony Minghella

The Talented Mr Ripley was an important movie for me as a teenager. While I enjoyed the aesthetically pleasing and psychologically vague friendships between the main characters I was lost in many places. I did not know anything about Patricia Highsmith and her writing, and much of the narrative and characterization seemed purely foreign to me. Like with many other films I saw in the late 1990s, I took everything as prescriptive of love and life, even when it made little sense to me. It is only in later viewings that I began to see the structure and layers of mental states in a piece like The Talented Mr Ripley. It is actually a better movie now.
Patricia Highsmith
There is a way of portraying young adults who deal with privilege and morality, or lack of these features. Donna Tartt's Secret History is another great, literary example of this. It is as if this sort of content calls for a setting in which old money runs into talented upstarts. Naivety and social conventions collide. I'm even thinking of F Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby here. In looking back, I could claim that a morality-in-flux is truly a feature of youth. That is why Mr Ripley and Mr Greenleaf are not played by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. That would be a totally different take on human intent. Instead this movie shines a serious spotlight on Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett and Jude Law. Even Philip Seymour Hoffman shimmers in a supporting role, as the smartly suspicious, rich friend of the murdered Greenleaf. It is difficult to look at what these actors are doing in The Talented Mr Ripley without the perspective we have on these superstars so many years later.

Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon
Times are different now. I'm certainly a different viewer this time around. If there was a remake this year, I bet it would be a much more sinister non-idealizing look into Patricia Highsmith's genius characters. Maybe less Hollywood and more gritty. The gay love themes, which exist in the 1999 version as polite suggestions, would be a bigger and more purposeful part of the film now. Or so I imagine... I could go into comparing the actors as they were and as they are now, but will only comment on a few: Jude Law has actually been good in some movies, but this is certainly not one of his great roles. Matt Damon is very amazing in The Talented... and in hindsight it seems that his early films were usually when he has been at a really high level. But my love goes to Cate Blanchett – she was already fully formed as a great actor in 1999 and I have never seen her be even mediocre in anything. 

A few years ago I bought Astrid a Patricia Highsmith biography, A Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson. I'm not sure if she's read it yet, but it's got a really good book jacket and features an (in)famous nude picture of Highsmith which immediately gives you some indication that Highsmith was certainly a radical of her era and an original. She dealt in psychological thrillers, and arguably her most celebrated creation (and most recurring character) has been Tom Ripley. Ripley's first appearance on the page was in The Talented Mr Ripley (the first of five novels based on the character). Ripley's debut has two film versions, Minghella's adaptation coming sometime after Rene Clement's iconic Plein Soleil from 1960 (which launched the career of Alain Delon). The Talented Mr Ripley has almost crossed into 'classic' territory, its reputation enhanced by featuring a young, already well known cast that have mostly gone onto cinema superstardom. Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman should be enough to pull you into watching the movie.

So fresh and so clean clean: Damon, Law and Paltrow
The Talented Mr Ripley is as much about class and social distinction as it is about murder, ambiguous sexual preferences, deceit, doppelganger and chameleon behaviour (Ripley's). Ripley, a wanna-be socialite, is sent to Italy by a millionaire to bring back to the USA his errant, heir-to-the-fortune, playboy son. Matt Damon plays Ripley, Jude Law, the absent son Dickie Greenleaf and Gwyneth Paltrow is Marge, Greenleaf's bride to be. A platonic menage à trois exists, with Ripley becoming confidant and witness to Greenleaf's infidelities (whilst Ripley, secretly falls in love with Greenleaf). Eventually, Ripley's mission is a failure and he takes desperate measures to ensure the social standing Greenleaf has afforded him endures. Matt Damon dominates the movie in a first class performance that carries a sometimes rickety film for much of the time. Paltrow is good with Hoffman and Blanchett excellent in the few scenes they appear in. The first hour or so is let down by what now looks an ill-judged shouty and brash performance by Jude Law. I've not decided if Law is any good or a chancer who made it on good looks and the acting came later. The Talented Mr Ripley certainly improves once Law is out of the picture. 

Matt Damon plays the Talented Mr Ripley
But the problems I had coming back to The Talented Mr Ripley after many years away are those class distinctions. It's pretty hard to feel much for Ripley and what he wants to attain in social standing, or the disgusting bourgeoise he wants to be a part of. I'm tired of seeing these kind of upper class, affluent 'idiot' characters on screen. I don't relate to these aspirations or people. The late Minghella has history here with The English Patient, Truly, Madly Deeply and Breaking and Entering – all these movies somehow catering to or about the privileged. This is a male white gaze we're watching where people outside our "heroes'" inner sanctum are portrayed as primitive people with no social worth. The slight hint of homosexuality The Talented Mr Ripley implies is cheaply highlighted. Damon really is great here, worth your time alone. But this inhabits a place I've lived in a lot in cinema, and although a decent movie, I need a break from this kind of grand folly of the rich and bored. 


Popular Posts