You know, I've always thought it was better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.
When American mystery writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) introduced the world to "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in 1955, little did she know that the bisexual charlatan and killer Tom Ripley would become her most enduring character. It was through the character of Tom Ripley that Highsmith was able to explore issues and ideas that intrigued her as a writer, namely the effects of guilt on the psyche and the dire consequences of crime. In addition to appearing in three other novels ("Ripley Under Ground", "Ripley's Game", and "Ripley Under Water"), the character Tom Ripley has also been brought to life in film. Ripley's first screen appearance was in the 1960 film "Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)" (which was based on "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), which was directed by René Clément and starred Alain Delon as Tom Ripley. The Ripley character also inspired the 1977 film "The American Friend" by Wim Wenders (who would later direct "Wings of Desire"), which starred Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz.
Well, whatever you do, no matter how terrible or how hurtful, nobody thinks that they're a bad person.
Now, at the end of 1999, comes another cinematic adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" from director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), who has populated the cast with top-notch talent, including Matt Damon ("Saving Private Ryan") as the titular character. And though a number of pundits claim that this update lacks the intensity and screen presence of Delon's memorable performance in "Plein Soleil", this version is more faithful to the spirit of Highsmith's novel, particularly in portraying Mr. Ripley as more of a tragic figure for whom the audience can empathize with.
The story starts in New York during the Fifties, where a borrowed Princeton jacket provides Tom Ripley (Damon) an opportunity to ingratiate himself into the household of wealthy shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn of "The Game"). Herbert, thinking that the young man is a school chum of his indolent son Dickie (Jude Law of "eXistenZ"), offers Tom the opportunity of a lifetime: $1000 for an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe to bring Dickie home. With nothing more than a lowly bathroom attendant job holding him back, Tom jumps at the opportunity and heads to the sunny shores of Italy.
Dickie Greenleaf? It's Tom... Tom Ripley. We went to Princeton together.
Once in Italy, Tom cozies up with Dickie and his fiancée Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow of "Shakespeare in Love"), who spend their days sailing and sunning themselves. Though Dickie cannot recall ever meeting Tom during his Princeton days, he still welcomes the stranger into his life, and pretty soon Tom is living in his house, eating his food, and wearing his clothes.
However, Tom's sojourn into the idyllic, carefree, and Greenleaf-sponsored lifestyle becomes threatened when the arrogant Dickie begins to grow tired of his new 'friend'. This then sets in motion a chain-reaction of deception and murder where Tom hones his talents in 'forging signatures, telling lies, and impersonating just about anyone' to sustain his newfound affluence. Unfortunately, a number of obstacles stand in the way of Tom's success, which include Dickie's drinking buddy in Rome (Philip Seymour Hoffman of "Magnolia"), a wealthy American heiress (Cate Blanchett of "Pushing Tin") who has a habit of showing up at the most inopportune times, a private detective (Philip Baker Hall, also of "Magnolia") hired by Dickie's father, and Marge's own suspicions.
I believe everyone has one unique talent... what's yours?
Forging signatures, telling lies, and impersonating just about anyone.
Though Tom commits a number of evil acts in "The Talented Mr. Ripley", the audience is still able to sympathize with him due to Minghella's presentation of Tom Ripley, which is very similar to Highsmith's original intentions for the character, aside from the unambiguous bisexuality of Damon's character. Unlike in "Plein Soleil", in which Delon played Tom as a remorseless and cold felon, Tom in this latest adaptation is a young man who will do anything in his power to 'fit in' and bolster his self-confidence-- often regretting the price he has paid. It is easy to empathize with such a character because companionship, respect, and admiration are basic human emotional needs, and the thought of having them being taken away is a universal fear. Though we may not agree with Tom's methods, we understand his motives and subconsciously want to see him succeed. Furthermore, Minghella further moderates Tom by painting Dickie in an unfavorable light, a flippant playboy who quickly turns cold to his friends, uses and discards women without compunction, and refuses to take responsibility for anything.
You, ah, stay at Dickie's house, you eat Dickie's food, you wear his clothes, and his father picks up the tab. Let me know if you get tired of it, so I can take over.
To cast his film, Minghella scored quite a coup by signing on a number of Hollywood's most prolific young actors. Interestingly enough, when casting decisions were made on "The Talented Mr. Ripley" back in 1997, none of the lead actors were 'stars' yet. Damon had yet to make a name for himself with "Good Will Hunting", Paltrow had not yet won her Best Actress Oscar, and Blanchett had yet to be nominated for her stunning work in "Elizabeth". But Minghella's gamble has paid of handsomely. Damon acquits himself nicely as Tom, conveying both the emotional vulnerability and cold calculation of this complex character. Paltrow, despite being given little to do for most of the picture, does well with playing the different facets of Marge that emerge during her friendship with Tom. Blanchett is also given little to do during the film, but is still fun to watch as a foolish American who falls under Tom's charms. Finally, Law is wonderfully callous as Dickie, while Hoffman memorably exudes his character's snobby qualities in his few short scenes.
I've never been happier... I feel like I've been handed a new life.
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" is an engaging thriller that succeeds due to the attention paid to character dynamics and careful plotting. There is a motive behind Tom Ripley's actions, which the audience is made to understand, and this in turn heightens the suspense of the story due to the emotional investment required from the viewer. Serving double-duty as writer and director, Minghella has done a superb job in adapting the source material and creating one of the best thrillers to grace the big screen in a long time. Could "Ripley 2" be not too far behind?