Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), the self-indulgent rich boy in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, turns out to be too suave and beautiful for his own good. Around the midpoint of the film, he’s murdered after rejecting the attentions of nerdish Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who’s half in love with him but also half wants to be him. And much the same fate awaits the film as a whole…
It’s so relentlessly good-looking—its Italian locations so bathed in golden light, its characters so exquisitely mannered, its narrative twists so elegantly constructed—that it seduces with its surface but proves difficult to love, even if it’s easy enough to like.
One may be infatuated with the intriguing storyline and the fine performances of the two lead actors, but that infatuation turns to exasperation when the film fails to deliver both genuine human insight or the kind of claustrophobic, stomach-twisting tension it promises. Writer-director Minghella leads us to expect Alfred Hitchcock, then gives us Merchant Ivory. It also suffers from being a story of two halves; the first strong and the second much less so.
The Talented Mr Ripley opens in 1950s New York, where the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn, wonderful) meets young Tom, an aspiring musician who works as a washroom attendant to make ends meet. He mistakenly believes Tom is an old Princeton classmate of his son Dickie, an illusion Tom does nothing to dispel (thus giving us an early hint of his duplicitous character) and asks him to go to Italy. Tom’s mission is to persuade Dickie, Herbert’s wayward son, to come home… and so the basis of the movie is set up, swiftly and efficiently.
We soon get another glimpse of Tom’s habitual deception soon after his arrival in Italy when he encounters Meredith (Cate Blanchett), a young American woman from an upper-crust family, and pretends to her that he is Dickie. This is one of a few implausible turns in the film, as it’s not clear why Tom would do this, especially given the risk she might know the real Dickie. But perhaps we’re supposed to get the idea that he can’t resist telling a lie when the opportunity presents itself?
In any case, Meredith disappears from the movie for a while and is never a top-echelon character, as Tom is soon busy forging a friendship with Dickie and his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their three-way relationship is, for the first half, the most interesting thing about the movie and gives the impression this will be a thoroughly character-oriented movie, with the camera often dwelling for a long time on individual’s faces.
The makings of a slow-burn mess start to become apparent: Tom is falling for Dickie, but Dickie’s decidedly much more interested in women, his fiancée seemingly only one of many whom he favours with his attentions. So there are parallels between their situations, even if eager-to-please, awestruck Tom is a very different character from the urbane, sardonic Dickie—both want something that (in the context of the ’50s) they shouldn’t want, both are dissimulating, both are using the other.
And it’s here Minghella starts to depart substantially from Patricia Highsmith’s much-acclaimed 1955 novel—the first of five she wrote featuring Tom Ripley and his crimes. Whereas Tom’s desire for a romantic and sexual relationship with Dickie is only obliquely suggested by Highsmith (in later books, Tom is married), in Minghella’s version it’s very frank and sometimes even overdone.
There’s a key scene where the pair are playing chess while Dickie lies in the bath; the camera lingers on his chest, then on Tom’s eyes, and we’ve already got the point. But Minghella goes on. “I’m cold,” says Tom, “can I get in?” “No,” says Dickie, and from his look we get the sense he knows what Tom’s up to. Tom makes a feeble excuse—he hadn’t meant to get in with Dickie, perish the thought—but still, when Dickie gets out and goes to dry himself off, Tom watches him naked on the other side of the room. Dickie looks back for a moment, and it’s as if Tom has been caught in a guilty act.
The scene’s effective in one way: the air is thick with tension and temptation. But by so emphasising the sexual aspect of Tom’s fascination with Dickie, Minghella risks undermining more interesting angles on class and personality. What makes Highsmith’s Tom so dark and dangerous is not that he’s personally attracted to Dickie, but that he’s jealous of him. Dickie has wealth, the easy confidence of the privately schooled, the Italian dolce vita lifestyle that Tom, who’s more intelligent and cultured (in the book anyway), feels he should have had.
“I’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” says Tom (a very similar type to Darren Criss’s compelling Andrew Cunanan in FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (2018).
Moreover, Highsmith’s Tom is a ruthless psychopath, like Robert Walker’s Bruno in the most famous of all Highsmith adaptations—Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). He will eventually kill Dickie cold-bloodedly and take over his identity.
Minghella, though, seems in two minds about this. On the one hand, he gives us a scheming Tom whose greatest natural talent is for fraud, supported by murder when necessary. But he also gives us a lonely, emotionally needy Tom. And crucially, his slaying of Dickie in the Minghella movie is seemingly accidental, even though it comes after an argument in which Dickie has called Tom boring (perhaps the gravest possible insult for both of them) and Tom has apparently refused to accept that Dickie isn’t interested in a more intimate relationship
That represents a very big departure from the meaning of the book and not a successful one. These two sides to the character of Tom—devious and devoted—don’t sit well together, and lead to some unlikely actions. If you’d just unintentionally bashed out the brains of the love of your life, would your first reaction be to assume their identity and start spending their money?
After Dickie’s death, now entering the second half of the movie, things start to go downhill. With Dickie out of the picture, there’s no other well-rounded character except Tom to sustain it, and so it becomes a narration of Tom-did-this-and-then-Tom-did-that. There’s no real engagement between people, and surprisingly little suspense because we don’t care very much about most of them.
Certainly, some of Tom’s scams are masterfully portrayed (notably a pair of assignations by the Spanish Steps in Rome, where he has to be two people almost simultaneously), but having been so character-led for so long, suddenly it’s all plot mechanics and no feeling, with not much sense of genuine peril or triumph either.
As if to remedy this, Minghella then suddenly foists a fully-fledged boyfriend on Tom, in the shape of Peter (Jack Davenport)—again, a development that’s neither in the Highsmith novel nor credible. Tom has hitherto been self-contained, rather cautious, perhaps sexually uncertain; now we’re expected to accept that he suddenly enters into a normal partnership of equals with another man, quite openly in a Catholic country in the ’50s while under suspicion by the police, to boot.
It’s a further example of Minghella undermining his own tale. The director goes through the motions of showing us the relentless criminal Tom, who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants, but he can’t resist also introducing a much gentler, more human Tom. The result is that we often end up feeling sympathy, even pity, for him rather than the kind of appalled yet spellbound distaste that Highsmith so smartly induces.
Fundamentally, then, Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley simply doesn’t work as a story. It’s unsure whether it wants to be a compassionate study of a tragic outsider or a voyeuristic dissection of an egocentric criminal, it fails at being either.
What saves it from being a truly bad film, however, are the performances. Damon (fresh from the success of 1997’s Good Will Hunting) makes a terrific Tom, capturing beautifully the way that the character himself is always playing a part… and just occasionally allowing a genuine facial expression, rather than a posed one, to shine through.
Even better is Law as Dickie, in a near-perfect performance for which he won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Academy Awards (as was Minghella for his screenplay). You can almost feel the sheen of the surface charm that conceals the spoiled brat beneath. Minghella observed (also citing Ralph Fiennes in 1994’s Quiz Show) that it takes a Brit to play that type of mid-century American preppie.
Blanchett and Paltrow are given much less to do in what’s essentially a male-driven film, perhaps appropriately given that Dickie and his crowd would probably consider that their main function is looking decorous. (In fact, Celia Weston, in a droll small role as an older lady, is more memorable than either.) But Sergio Rubini as an Italian cop steals every scene he sets foot in, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificently vile as an affectedly cynical, annoyingly bumptious pal of Dickie’s.
The Talented Mr Ripley was generally well-received and successful, although there were differences of opinion on how well it compares with René Clément’s 1960 version Plein Soleil/Purple Noon, where Alain Delon took the Tom role. Some critics also questioned the excessive glossy gorgeousness of the movie, with Xan Brooks of The Guardian saying it looked “like an edition of Harpers and Queen set to sound and motion”. Still, most people’s reaction was positive, and it further cemented the reputation of Minghella after his Oscar for The English Patient (1996). He’d go on to direct one other major work, Cold Mountain (2003), before his unfortunate death.
And it’s a highly watchable movie—up to a point. Even if its take on Italy is like something from Carmela Soprano’s over-heated fantasies of the old country, full of scooters and singing priests, the locations are infectiously attractive. As is Dickie and Marge’s life. We recognise they’re essentially immature kids living in a cocoon of comfort while pretending they’re out experiencing the real world, making a big deal of how European they’ve become but still desperate to get a refrigerator… and yet we can understand why Tom’s so awestruck and we want him to succeed in his mission of being accepted by them.
We root for Tom Ripley, and our identification with a character we know is going to be “the bad guy” itself engenders some interesting unease. Indeed, Minghella seems to have recognised that the way the set-up so inherently conflicts with the conventional protagonist/antagonist division was one of the most promising aspects of the Ripley saga; “I was charmed by the idea of a central character who could commit murder and get away with it,” he said.
If only he’d kept the focus on that idea. As the movie turned out, though, once it becomes clear that Tom’s interest in Dickie may be nothing more than a rather mundane crush, and then once Dickie is killed and there is nothing left for Minghella to show us except Tom gadding around telling fibs, The Talented Mr Ripley starts to fall apart.
The tangle of motivations and relationships, the subtle frictions, the air of unsaid menace: all of them vanish with Jude Law. And however talented he may be, Tom Ripley without Dickie Greenleaf turns out to be also a little tedious.
Cast & Crew
director: Anthony Minghella.
writer: Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith).
starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn, Sergio Rubini & Philip Baker Hall.