20 Years On: Reflections on ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’
This December, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley will turn 20. Despite being a quintessentially summer movie, of course Weinstein’s Miramax released it in awards season. However, there is no way I could write about this film around Christmas time. This movie exudes sun, sea, sand, salt and sweat. 1999 is a famous year in movie history (rightly so) and The Talented Mr Ripley is up there with the best of that year. Along with The English Patient, Minghella has made two of my all-time favourite films and he has achieved that rare feat: book adaptations that are at least as good, if not better, than their source material. After reading Patricia Highsmith’s book (the first in a Ripley series), I have truly come to realise what a ingenious adaptation the film is. Minghella has transformed the text into a visual medium, using recurring motifs to hint at Ripley’s internal machinations and identity crises. Anthony Minghella’s death in 2008, at the age of just 54, was a huge blow to the film industry. As with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a small but significant impact on Ripley, it is impossible not to think of what we have lost – of the movies they never got to make.
The Talented Mr Ripley is the story of a young man in 1950’s New York – Thomas Ripley (Matt Damon), who is sent to Italy by an extremely wealthy shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to retrieve his son, Dickie (Jude Law). There, Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), with no real intention of doing as Herbert asks. When Dickie starts to tire of Tom, Ripley murders him and assumes his identity. The second half of the film is concerned with Tom trying to stay one step ahead of the suspicions of Dickie’s friends and relations, as well as the police, as he moves through Naples, Rome and Venice. Rounding out the cast is Cate Blanchett, as Meredith Logue – a character who isn’t in the book, Jack Davenport as Peter Smith-Kingsley, who Tom becomes close with towards the end and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles – a thorn in Ripley’s side.
Tom Ripley is established as a pretender and usurper from the start – he works as a bathroom attendant and spies on classical musicians. He borrows a Princeton jacket when filling in for a friend, playing piano at a fancy party. It is here that Herbert Greenleaf approaches him about Dickie, who Tom has never actually met. Tom pretends to know Dickie and starts studying him – he thinks a way he can connect with him is through Dickie’s love of jazz. When getting off the boat in Italy, Tom meets Meredith and introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf, without much pause – showing that the seeds of deception and the assimilation of Dickie are sown early on.
The theme of perception is also present from the start of the film – at the start, Tom says “if I could rub everything out, starting with myself…” When he starts learning Italian, he learns the phrase “this is my face.” Later, after Tom murders Dickie, he scratches Dickie’s photo out of his passport. Tom is upfront with Dickie about his “talents” from the start, which he states are; forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody. Tom has a gift for mimicry – he perfectly imitates Herbert Greenleaf’s voice, which equally delights and scares Dickie. When Dickie takes Tom to a jazz club, Tom sings My Funny Valentine, including the lyric “don’t change a hair for me…” while looking right at Dickie. Later, Tom will change his own hairstyle in order to impersonate the murdered Dickie.
Reflections and mirrors are one of the main visual motifs used ingeniously by Minghella. Ripley’s desire for Dickie is much more overt in the film (obviously showing a change in what could be discussed or shown between the 1950s and the 1990s). Tom’s voyeurism pervades the film – the first time he sees Dickie, it is through binoculars, from afar on the beach. One of Seymour Hoffman’s multiple perfect line deliveries in this film comes when Freddie, Tom, Marge and Dickie are on Dickie’s boat – there has been some tension and argument between Marge and Dickie, followed by make-up sex. Freddie spots Tom spying on them and repeats the refrain “Tommy how’s the peeping?” One of the most famous scenes in the film is when Dickie is in the bath and Tom sits next to it – they are playing chess. Ripley’s reflection can be seen in the bathwater which covers Dickie’s legs. When Dickie gets out of the bath, Tom uses a mirror to watch him and Dickie is conscious of being watched.
There are multiple moments when Ripley and Dickie look at each other through refracted surfaces – showing that Tom longs to be Dickie’s mirror image, but it is always distorted or corrupted somehow. Tom cannot achieve the perfection he longs for. Their overlapping faces are reminiscent of the Greek comedy/tragedy masks, still used today to represent drama or theatre. They were paired together to demonstrate the two extremes of the human psyche and this is how Ripley views Dickie – as his mirror image, but Dickie was the one who got all the breaks in life – he has the looks, the charm, the rich parents. Ripley is driven by both desire and jealously – he wants to have Dickie and when he is met with resistance, he consumes him whole. If you can’t join them, beat them.
One day, Dickie comes home to discover Tom in his bedroom, trying on his clothes. Ripley had been dancing and lip-synching, while half-dressed and is extremely embarrassed to be caught. Tom hides behind a full-length mirror and Ripley’s reflection, with a look of horror and disgust on his face, can be seen in it. Next to the mirror, is a sculpture of a classical torso (probably designed using the golden ratio) – another example of the perfection that Ripley cannot attain. When Ripley kills Freddie, the murder weapon is a bust of Hadrian. Hadrian was a Roman emperor who had his ‘favourite’ lover Antinous deified after his death and founded a cult to worship him. It is also suggested that Hadrian killed Antinous himself, possibly as a human sacrifice – almost as if the idea of him as a symbol to be revered was more important than the actual real person. The parallels with Ripley’s adoration of Dickie are clear.
After Tom has murdered Dickie, he travels down a little Rome backstreet on a Vespa. The street is lined with mirrors (presumably from an antique dealer or similar) and Tom thinks he sees Dickie in one of the reflections. It spooks him so much that he crashes the Vespa and then he is left looking into a cracked mirror, realising that of course, it wasn’t Dickie. The mirrors contain Ripley’s shattered illusions – of trying to be close to Dickie, of trying to be Dickie, of trying to escape Dickie…
The last use of mirrors comes right at the end of the film and in fact, the last image uses a reflection. [Spoilers] The final sequence of the film takes place on a boat. Ripley believes he has perhaps found some peace and happiness with Peter (Davenport), but he is still haunted wherever he goes by Meredith (Blanchett), who knows him as Dickie. Keeping his story straight around different groups of people is becoming increasingly difficult, so Ripley must murder again. The film ends on Ripley sitting on his bed, with Peter’s heartbreaking voice-over “Tom is crushing me.” Tom’s reflection can be seen behind him, so it is as if he is watching himself. Tom has been concerned with escaping the ghost of Dickie this whole time, but he ultimately cannot escape himself. He is his own devil on his shoulder.
In December, there will surely be many articles and personal essays written about The Talented Mr Ripley, but I will be surprised if they overlap that much on the ground they cover. It is such a rich film, full of layers of detail, that there are hundreds of aspects to choose to write about. I have barely scratched the surface here and I have only really focused on one or two visual motifs – it was incredibly hard to narrow down what to focus on. If you’ve never seen this film, or not re-watched it for a long time, it so worth diving into. Anthony Minghella has taken a masterpiece of a book and transformed it into an entirely new and different masterpiece. He has made changes and additions whilst entirely staying true to the character of Ripley and Highsmith’s vision. It is a miracle of a film and stands amongst the best of what was an incredible year.