The Big Rewatch: The Talented Mr Ripley, Anthony Minghella, 1999

The Talented Mr Ripley poster in sepia tones, with a close up of Matt Damon in the foreground and Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in the background.
Image credit: IMDB

The escapist theme of The Big Rewatch continues, with a film that is all about escapism, albeit with fatal consequences. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, the film follows the eponymous Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) as he travels to Italy on the dime of Howard Greenleaf, in an attempt to persuade Greenleaf’s son Dickie, living in a picturesque Italian town with his girlfriend Marge, to return to New York. Ripley becomes caught up in his own lies, and his attraction to Dickie leads him down a dark path.

The film covers a lot of ground in its 2 hour 19 minute runtime. Though the events of the film must take place within little more than a single year, the story has a sense of the epic. And indeed of Greek tragedy, with ‘mistaken’ identities, jealousy and anger all playing significant roles in the plot progression.

I haven’t read the novel, so can’t compare, although I have heard that to do so would not be favourable to the film. Key to the story is Ripley’s sexuality, and his romantic attraction to Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf. I gather that this is far more open in the novel, and was considerably played down for the film. I want it to be hard to believe that the film was released as recently as 1999, because they are incredibly shy of anything ‘obvious’ when it comes to gay interactions. Even a seemingly happy couple, in complete privacy, don’t so much as hug each other. However in some ways the ’90s were as closeted as the ’50s, and mainstream movies certainly more so than literature, so it isn’t entirely surprising that they refuse to show any real affection between a male couple. What’s sadder to reflect on is that we’re maybe only just reaching a point where filmmakers would be comfortable portraying gay couples (especially happy ones) in mainstream film.

It’s a perfect illustration of the way privilege can insulate an individual from the harm of their actions

The film is adept at capturing a sense of atmosphere. Aside from the grim events of the plot itself, we are totally drawn into the way of life of the American ‘ex-pats’ at the fictional Mongibello. I’m pretty sure everyone knows a woman who models herself on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Marge: blonde, thin, great with a cocktail, and writing a book (they’re always writing a book). Minghella has carefully presented each character, subtly (and in some cases more blatantly) poking at the hypocrisy of their privileged way of life. Dickie’s wayward and workshy hedonism is punctured by the real harm it inflicts on the community around him. The Festival of the Madonna scene stands out as a brilliant depiction of the long-term pain and suffering inflicted on a local community by an interloper. I may be stretching this a little far, but it’s not dissimilar to gap year kids traveling to ‘help’ small communities, or even colonialism and the British empire. It’s a perfect illustration of the way privilege can insulate an individual from the harm of their actions, which are then paid for by wider society.

Damon captures a sense of not quite fitting in that many of us can relate to

The actors pull off this balancing act well, each pairing a likability with that cold obliviousness of the rich. Damon’s performance is undoubtedly the best (although Jude Law won the BAFTA for his role, while Damon did not win a single one of his many award nominations), managing to somehow have us rooting for Ripley, even as we are horrified by his actions. He captures a sense of not quite fitting in, for both his socio-economic status and his sexuality, that many of us can relate to. He is the impostor we all fear we are. For the most part the film avoids straying into exaggerations and caricatures that would undermine its narrative. The characters may not behave as we would hope, but we can always see their side of the story, and believe them as real people. Even cruel Dickie has his point. One failure in this is perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Freddie Miles. He is cartoonishly unpleasant, and we are perhaps a little too on Ripley’s side when he faces the consequences.

Like Ripley, we are thrown from grim reality into a world of colour and warmth, beautiful fabrics, idyllic coastlines and shaken cocktails

In my review of Love Wedding Repeat I noted that the film couldn’t be saved by its aesthetics. The Talented Mr Ripley is a brilliant example of setting and styling adding to the film, rather than simply being used as a crutch. Like Ripley, we are thrown from grim reality into a world of colour and warmth, beautiful fabrics, idyllic coastlines and shaken cocktails. Had the costumes not been so luxurious, the seas not so blue, the landscapes not so charming, we would not have been seduced, like Ripley, by the glamour of the lifestyle he finds in Italy. We wouldn’t have seen why he thinks it worth the risk. As much as the characters are attractive to him, it is more like the whole soup of the atmosphere and aesthetic that so tightly captures him.

The plot is well-constructed, full of twists and heart-in-your-mouth moments. Despite some points of slight absurdity it never entirely loses credibility, and manages to pull off a somehow realistic sense of being something we might have read about in the newspapers (if any of us still read those). Perhaps most convincing is the way one small, seemingly insignificant and harmless lie can lead to another and another, until the whole construction becomes unstable and starts to collapse.

The Talented Mr Ripley offers an escape to warmer climes and mid-century glamour, but will likely leave you quite satisfied with the relative simplicity of your own life. Sometimes glamour isn’t worth the risk.

What do you think of The Talented Mr Ripley? I’d really like to read the book, which I think is actually part of a series. Who is your favourite character? If they remade the film now, who would you cast in the lead roles, and do you think they’d be more open in the portrayal of their sexuality? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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