How far would you go to be somebody else? Like most of us, Tom Ripley fantasizes the endless possibilities of stepping outside his own identity; the proverbial ‘what if’ scenario played out inside his head. Life is, regrettably, rarely what we chose, but rather a set of imperfect situations presented to us, perhaps designed to test our resolve and moral progression – or lack thereof – in our character. But how does one remain true to that sense of self when the very impression of self is ever-changing in the beholder’s mind; the chameleon chronically dissatisfied with ‘what is’ and perpetually striving for what can, might, though arguably never will be? Authoress Patricia Highsmith’s schemer/day-dreamer, Tom Ripley, remains a hypnotic psychological study: what can - and does - go wrong when self-loathing and blinding ambition conspire to rob a man of his own individuality. Tom Ripley – the eager, malicious, enterprising and fundamentally flawed ‘hero’ of Highsmith’s novel is a tantalizingly tragic figure; the line between life and Tom’s reality increasingly blurred in Anthony Minghella’s spellbinding thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
Highsmith’s ability to delve into the darkened recesses of her handsome, though severely troubled dilettante, so clearly out of his element and class, wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting around him. And see the nasty whim of fate in it; how none of Tom Ripley’s (Matt Damon) aspirations might have been afforded the opportunity to infect the world if not for his casual borrowing of a Princeton jacket to help out a friend during a rooftop piano recital at one of New York’s more fashionable cocktail parties. Mistaken for a Princeton man by wealthy ship-building magnet Herbert (James Rehborn) and Emily Greenleaf (Lisa Eichhorn), Tom tells a little white lie about his past that will prove the undoing of his future.
It seems that the Greenleaf’s son, Dickie (Jude Law) has forsaken his responsibilities to the family business and is contented to laze around the piazzas of Italy. Born to privilege, Dickie’s sense of entitlement, his devil-may-care bon vivant is both an intoxicating, yet toxic influence to the people who are drawn as moths to his flame. Yet the insidiousness of Dickie’s character is sheathed by his outward charisma; a mask sufficient to sustain his relationship with the attractive, affluent, though willfully naïve Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). At Herbert’s behest, Tom is given an all-expenses paid trip to Italy to find Dickie and convince him to come home.
But almost from the moment of Tom’s arrival this plan goes hopelessly awry. Tom finagles a ‘cute meet’ on the beach where Dickie and Marge are soaking up the sun, pretending to remember Dickie from their Princeton days. Marge is congenial and openly trusting. But Dickie is standoffish at best, and more than a tad condescending. Still, Dickie is mildly amused by Tom’s ‘accidental’ reunion and shortly thereafter takes him into his confidences. After all, it is flattering to be remembered – and, in fact – worshipped by Tom who is instantly sucked into Dickie’s world. Dickie moves Tom into the villa he shares with Marge. For a brief time all is well amongst these new found friends.
Dickie introduces Tom to the decadence of post-war Italy, its smoky jazz clubs and sizzling hot Riviera; riding Vespas into the sunset and sailing off the coast toward the flat sun-drenched horizon. Tom is enamored with Dickie’s lifestyle. But then he lets his secret slip and even more, confesses to Dickie that his own past has included some very spurious activities; impersonations, forgeries, etc. Dickie latches onto the idea to bleed Tom’s expense account dry for his own purposes; buying an icebox and even contemplating getting a car.
Tom is all for it. In fact, he has become quite obsessed – and perhaps even romantically infatuated – with the man himself. The bro-mance is definitely on. But Tom is to have a change of heart in his blind idol worship when he inadvertently witnesses a passionate encounter between Dickie and Silvana (Stephanie Rocco); a local who, unbeknownst to Marge has become impregnated by Dickie, then drowns herself when he refuses to acknowledge the child as his own. Tom is disillusioned by Dickie’s callous disregard for Silvana and momentarily confronts him in private. The adversarial nature of this sequence foreshadows all the unpleasantness yet to follow.
In the meantime, Tom’s monopolization of Dickie’s time is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman); a pampered, pompous playboy, drunk on his own affluence. Whatever Freddie’s flaws, he is loyal to Dickie – something Tom is not. Tom is a sycophant, a worshipper, a usurper – studying the man like a text book in the hopes of learning all his secrets without sharing any of his own. And Freddie has no patience or need to placate Tom’s growing insecurity. In fact, he does everything to marinate Dickie’s first impressions of Tom with plenty of doubt and suspicion. As a result, the friendship between Tom and Dickie rapidly cools. Dickie suddenly realizes that Tom’s stroking of his ego has colored his thinking. Perhaps it also has a darker purpose, one that Dickie has decided he will no longer entertain.
Thus, when Dickie and Tom leave Marge at the villa for a weekend getaway, Dickie makes it clear to Tom that the friendship – such as it was – has come to an end. The idea of returning to that squalid little life he knew before Italy is hateful to Tom. Superficially threatening Dickie again by bringing up Silvana, Tom come to blows with Dickie inside a small boat. In a moment of fitful confrontation Tom bludgeons Dickie to death with an ore, perhaps before he even realizes what he has done. Weighing down Dickie’s body and dumping it into the Mediterranean, Tom returns to the hotel in a mild panic and is mistaken for Dickie by the concierge. Recognizing the opportunity of the moment, Tom assumes Dickie’s identity to pay their hotel bill, compounding his betrayal by bumping into willfully naïve socialite, Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchette) and passing himself off as Dickie Greenleaf. Meredith is immediately smitten, in love with the idea of Dickie rather than the man himself.
But Tom is in a hurry to get back to Marge and establish the story that Dickie has run out on both of them. However, Tom’s attempt to convincingly create this doubt about Dickie’s loyalties has the reverse effect; Marge increasingly becomes suspicious of Tom instead. In the meantime, Tom is introduced by Marge to Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), a young man who becomes attracted to him. Tom begins an insidious game of cat and mouse, typing letters in Dickie’s hand and addressing them to Marge in the hopes of throwing her off his scent. By now, Herbert is alarmed by the news of his son’s disappearance and by Tom’s ineffectualness to get to the bottom of things. He hires a private investigator Alvin MacCarron (Philip Baker Hall) who begins to skulk around and piece together clues surrounding the mystery. But when Freddie returns to Milan his ire is raised after he discovers Tom living in high style on Dickie’s money. Freddie’s probing gets the better of Tom and he murders him with a heavy plaster bust, dragging the body to a remote location. Now, the Italian authorities under Inspector Roverini (Sergio Rubini) begin to suspect Tom as well.
It’s all falling apart much too quickly. Tom tips his hand in his seduction of Marge when she discovers Dickie’s ring – the one she gave him – among Tom’s belongings. Meredith resurfaces in Milan. Her casual run-in with Marge revealing that she has been dating Dickie for some time – or at least, the man she believes to be Dickie who is, of course Tom. Tom narrowly escapes bumping into the pair. But Marge cannot surrender her women’s intuition that Tom is somehow responsible for all that has happened. MacCarron concludes that Dickie has disappeared of his own accord and Herbert instructs him to afford Tom a portion of Dickie’s income with the understanding that certain sordid details about his son's past will remain a secret forever. Marge is enraged, accusing Tom of being the instigator. But her cries go unheeded and Tom decides to take a cruise with Peter who has, in fact, become his lover in the interim.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Meredith is also on board the ship. Peter catches a glimpse of Tom placating Meredith with a kiss and assumes he is in love with her. Realizing that he cannot murder Meredith – because she is travelling with her family – but also that he will be found out in his masquerade since Peter and Meredith know one another (and Peter knows that Tom is…well…Tom while Meredith believes he is Dickie), Tom sobs on Peter’s shoulder before cold-bloodedly strangling him in bed. The scene concludes with Tom returning to his own cabin, uncertain of what the next step in his own unraveling will be.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a bone-chilling psychological thriller; deliciously concocted out of a distinctly elegant languor; that postwar Italian renaissance first typified fifty years earlier by the likes of Fellini and Visconti is stunningly resurrected herein. But director Anthony Minghella has also taken a page from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955); particularly in his stylish evocation of the Italian Riviera; the ‘cute meet’ between Marge, Dickie and Tom on the beach almost a carbon-copy of Hitchcock’s initial set-up between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at the beach club at Cannes from the aforementioned thriller. Minghella once openly admitted that the logistics of recreating postwar Italy proved something of a nightmare, but the effect on screen is both uncanny and enveloping; Italy becoming as much a star as any of the flesh and blood characters who inhabit its sun-kissed backdrop.
In hindsight the real coup remains the casting of Matt Damon as Highsmith’s diabolical and self-destructing Tom Ripley: both hero and villain of the piece; a seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy extraordinarily fleshed out by Damon’s superior craftsmanship as an actor; his capacity to lure the audience into his character with a natural empathy. We feel Tom’s crippling sense of loneliness and lose ourselves in his unnerving sadness to the extent where we sincerely hope Tom Ripley will get away with his rouse despite the fact he has done some irreprehensible things along the way.
The other performances are uniformly solid. Jude Law’s facility to probe an elusive darkness beneath the surface of Dickie’s slick charm creates a mesmerizing counterpoint to Tom’s dreadful need to possess him. In many ways, Dickie is Tom’s alter ego. While Tom basically begins the movie undiluted in his aspirations – and therefore without subterfuge – ergo, mostly transparent in his motives, Dickie’s corrupting influence is not immediately obvious, though it ultimately sends Tom’s fragile psyche into a tailspin; the instigator for having tempted Tom with a taste of the good life only to callously snuff it out. Indeed, denying Tom his place in the sun is at the crux of all the tragedy that follows.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s superior transition from contented woman to the much cooler ice-princess a la Grace Kelly – tormented, yet unheard – is a brilliant piece of acting, as is Cate Blanchette’s smaller, though no less, potent part as the jaded socialite who inadvertently becomes the persistent fly in Tom’s ointment. Finally, there is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deliciously calculated Freddie Miles – an unscrupulous, unrelenting thirst for the truth melded onto a venomous pleasure to watch Tom squirm. Essentially a character-driven drama with hints of the noir style peppered in, The Talented Mr. Ripley would not have excelled or even worked if any of the aforementioned had not been at the top of her game. Director Minghella has, in fact, assembled the ideal cast for this pluperfect thriller with producer Sidney Pollack providing immeasurable support during the 90 day chaotic location shoot in Italy, basically a travelogue Cook’s tour of some gorgeous sun-saturated scenery.
Warner Home Video’s distribution deal with Paramount has now made The Talented Mr. Ripley available on Blu-ray. Image quality advances over the previously issued DVD, with flesh tones noticeably becoming cooler but much more natural in 1080p. John Seale’s sumptuous cinematography snaps together with exceptional detail and film grain accurately reproduced. At 2 hr. 20 minutes, The Talented Mr. Ripley has a solid bit rate, exemplified by exceptional contrast and a stunning amount of detail throughout, but especially in close-ups. Age related artifacts and digital noise are a non-issue. Colors pop and everything looks as it should – the ‘wow factor’ in evidence throughout. Gabriel Yared’s score is given its due, newly mastered in DTS 5.1. Extras are direct imports from the DVD edition, including Minghella’s comprehensive audio commentary and several choice featurettes that include some fairly interesting interviews with cast and crew and other junkets on the film’s creation. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)