“Tom is talented. Tom is tender… Tom is beautiful… Tom is a mystery. Tom is not a nobody. Tom has secrets he doesn’t want to tell me, and I wish he would. Tom has nightmares. That’s not a good thing. Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing. Tom is crushing me. Tom is crushing me… Tom, you’re crushing me!”
These final lines of dialog spoken in The Talented Mr. Ripley are probably the best way to do justice to Anthony Minghella’s classy adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s wonderfully twisted novel that introduced her sociopathic conman, Tom Ripley, to the world. These few words capture the essence of a tale of cascading deceit that’s told from the inside out.
Tom has everything one would need for success, including ambition, ingenuity, and intelligence – but is cruelly missing one trait – a soul that would give him empathy for others and sharpen his ability respond appropriately when faced with a choice between right and wrong. This personality flaw, coupled with his overall likeability and presumed trustworthiness, make him a most dangerous man, indeed. He’s a predator who almost believes his own cloak of innocence and naiveté, and who suffers each time he gets himself cornered into a situation from which he sees only one means of escape.
Villains make remarkable protagonists. Highsmith liked her character so much that she kept him around for four more turns in her novels, but Minghella’s adaptation deals exclusively with this introduction novel where Ripley (the amiable Matt Damon) is engaged by a New York shipping tycoon to track down and bring home his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf, played with a stellar turn here by Jude Law. Tom takes the job – under false pretenses, of course – for the money, but when he gets a taste of the life Dickie is leading in Italy, he gets a more challenging and deadly idea that only a character like Ripley could, possibly, pull off. He befriends Dickie for the sole purpose of becoming Dickie, to inhabit his life and his persona and to shuck-off the geeky cockroach shell with which he feels he has been cursed. Tom Ripley is well-aware of his deadly shortcomings and, the strange thing is, while we watch him scramble with his lies and sinister motives, we actually root for him, not his victims, every time he gets into a tangle that threatens to unmask him.
Most films with a psychopathic bent are dark, musty affairs that use atmosphere to intensify the suspense, but Minghella’s film is a feast for the eyes. The sun-dappled sea off the photogenic Italian coast, vintage cafes, nightclubs, and villas host the well-to-do heirs who spend their time playing like spoiled, worldly children. When someone like the working-class Tom drops in amongst them, they pay him little, if perfunctory, heed. They see him as an amusement –that is, until his perceived persona starts to unravel in front of them and their disbelief becomes their undoing.
Minghella had the supreme luck with hiring soon-to-be mega-stars in the primary supporting roles. In addition to Law, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchet are the jetsetters duped into entering Ripley’s deadly labyrinth. Hoffman is all nasal disdain and arrogance as Dickie’s close friend, Freddie Miles. Blanchett is the flighty and interminably chatty Meredith Logue who manages, unwittingly, to constantly act the foil to Ripley’s schemes. Paltrow, as Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge, transgresses from carefree debutante to little more than a bitter and frightened voice that nobody seems to hear.
Minghella took a few liberties with Highsmith’s original novel, mostly for the better. The result, as he chose to film it, is simultaneously sumptuous and suspenseful. The entire seduction takes us in and ultimately makes us, the audience, accessories to the crimes of a likeable, lonely and extremely troubled young man. And we guiltily enjoy every minute.
“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody” – Tom Ripley