The Talented Mr. Ripley [DVD]
Screenplay : Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley), James Rebhorn (Herbert Greenleaf), Sergio Rubini (Inspector Roverini), Philip Baker Hall (Alvin MacCarron), Celia Weston (Aunt Joan)
Director John Boorman ("Deliverance"), writing about Michael Powell's 1960 film "Peeping Tom," said, "The profound unease we feel in identifying with an evil character in a movie is the recognition that we may be capable of such evil."
This is precisely the effect of Anthony Minghella's new film, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which bears a thematic resemblance to "Peeping Tom" in that both films ask and successfully seduce their audience into identifying, and ultimately sympathizing, with sociopathic characters. In "Mr. Ripley," Minghella has moved away from the David Lean-like epic romantic nature of "The English Patient," which won a myriad of Academy Awards in 1996, and deep into the perverse heart of Alfred Hitchcock. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a film Hitchcock would have been proud to make, which is as strong a compliment as one can give to Mingella's efforts in this uniformly first-rate, darkly chilling thriller.
Mr. Ripley of the title is a young man named Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), and his talents revolve around his ability to impersonate others. He puts these talents to good use when a wealthy American shipbuilding tycoon, Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), mistakes Tom for a Princeton graduate and asks him to go to Mongibello, Italy, to convince his son, Dickie (Jude Law), to come back to the United States. Apparently, Dickie has graduated from Princeton and moved to Europe to "sow his wild oats." However, with a generous monthly allowance from his father, Dickie, who is a shallow, spoiled playboy, has decided that he likes it better abroad, and would much rather spend his time sailing boats than helping his father build them.
Once Tom ingratiates himself into Dickie's life, he finds that he is in love with both the lifestyle and Dickie himself. In these early portions of the film, Minghella takes painstaking care to show us that Tom is, in fact, a seasoned liar who treats deception as a kind of art to be practiced. When he learns that Dickie is a great fan of jazz music, Tom sets about learning everything he can about great jazz musicians, and then sets up a perfect scenario in which to profess how much he loves jazz, thus moving that much closer to Dickie's heart. He also has a sly way of getting close to Dickie's girlfriend, a unsuspecting and good-hearted woman named Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is both intelligent and vulnerable.
The film follows how Tom moves into and eventually takes over Dickie's life, and by the time all is said and done, three people have been murdered and Tom has set up a web of lies and deception that has everyone from Dickie's father to the Italian police to a private investigator completely baffled. All of this is executed by Minghella in a perfectly Hitchockian manner, in that he constantly aligns the audience with Tom. Every part of the film is shot from Tom's perspective, and the ease with which Minghella gets the audience to sweat and squirm at the notion of Tom getting caught is almost frightening. The skill and precision with which Minghella pulls the film together is mesmerizing.
Of course, he is working with a deeply fascinating character. Tom Ripley was the creation of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith, who used him as a character in five different books (it is little wonder that a film made from one of her novels would be described as Hitchcockian--her first novel was the source material for Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train"). Highsmith was a novelist who made a successful career writing about twisted, sociopathic characters, few of whom were ever given conventional rationales for their behavior. This also holds true for Tom Ripley; although, in his adaptation, Minghella offers some explanation for Ripley's more murderous inclinations by making the implicit homosexuality of Highsmith's novels explicit, so that his initial murder can be seen as the impassioned result of Dickie's eventually rebuking Tom's advances on his life.
Because Tom Ripley is such a fascinating, frustrating character who we despise and pity at the same time, it was of the utmost importance that Matt Damon's portrayal be just right. As an actor of rising talent, Damon has worked best in roles that require him to suggest something lurking beneath a facade (this is especially true of his portrayal of the genius janitor in "Good Will Hunting," but it also came out in his role as an anti-Semitic student in "School Ties").
As Tom Ripley, Damon finds perhaps the perfect role, one that requires him to appear awkward and naive on the outside, while harboring on the inside a great deal of cunning, intelligence, and general malice. He plays the duality perfectly, and it is the pitch of his performance--his ability to suggest that he is both a killer and a victim--that makes the film work. (The only audience members who are likely to be disappointed with his performance are his teenage female fans, who, when I saw the film, voiced their unease at seeing their heartthrob playing an amoral, homosexual sociopath by gasping and groaning in shock throughout the film.)
As he showed in "The English Patient," Minghella can be a compassionate director, and he obviously cares for his characters, despite their flaws (or outright amorality). It is because of this sensibility that he is able to keep Tom Ripley from being a simple monster. Minghella is too complex and nuanced a director for such simplicities, so therefore he refuses to punish Ripley in any conventional manner. Although the final frames of the film convey the fact that the law will not get Ripley--he is beyond their clutches--Minghella makes clear that Ripley has paid a price for his deeds, and the last shot of the film is both heart-wrenching and deeply satisfying. It is satisfying because the punishment Ripley must suffer is more poetic and appropriate than any jail time he might serve. It is heart-wrenching because, after more than two hours of sympathizing with him, it is hard to watch Ripley suffer without feeling some remorse. He is, after all, still human, and it is Minghella's greatest achievement that he keeps that notion so clear.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Languages: English, French
Extras: Screen-specific audio commentary by director Anthony Minghella; "Inside Mr. Ripley" making-of featurette; soundtrack making-of featurette; original theatrical trailer and teaser trailer; cast and crew interviews; two music videos
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Video: The anamorphic widescreen image on this DVD is simply beautiful. Colors are deep and rich, and there is almost no grain evident. The image is particularly film-like, with great reproduction of the film's multiple color schemes, from the amber hue of the interiors, to the electric blue of a jazz club at night, to the faded rainbow of painted buildings that line the film's fictional Italian beach town. Flesh tones look right, and there was no digital artifacting or surface blemishes to be found. Overall, a beautiful picture.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also uniformly excellent. The soundtrack contains a great deal of jazz music, all of which sounds perfectly pitched and deeply resonant. The soundtrack is not particularly active in terms of surround effects, but when needed it creates a good ambient environment.
Extras: This disc comes with a good selection of supplements to enhance the viewing of the film. Anthony Minghella's screen-specific running audio commentary is steady and extremely informative, covering virtually every facet of the filmmaking process. The 23-minute "Inside Mr. Ripley" making-of featurette is decent; it gives a good amount of background information and on-set photography, but it still plays at times like an extended advertising feature. However, this featurette will be interesting for the astute viewer who will notice that it includes short clips of scenes and alternate takes that did not make it into the final cut. The cast and crew interviews are good without being outstanding. The short, eight-minute soundtrack making-of featurette is a nice touch, since music (both the jazz within the story and Gabriel Yared's excellent score) is such an integral part of the film's success.
Copyright © 1999,2000 James Kendrick