I’ve been rewatching some of my old favourites lately, including this underappreciated 1999 thriller written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Though, judging by the amount of online articles that seem to be popping up to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, maybe it’s not so underappreciated after all.
My two persistent thoughts upon the rewatch were: 1) oh my everyone looks so young, beautiful and vibrant, and 2) I so want to go back to Italy for a holiday, though maybe not right now while the coronavirus pandemic is raging. Back in 1999, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett were the brightest new golden boys and girls, Paltrow fresh off her Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love and Damon still basking in the Good Will Hunting afterglow. Behind the opulent locations and the sun-kissed Italian scenery, however, The Talented Mr. Ripley hides a dark, bleak and cynical heart, which probably contributed to the film’s enduring appeal when so many of its contemporaries with the similar Oscar-baiting attributes faded fast.
I’ve never read Patricia Highsmith’s original novel about Tom Ripley the social-climbing sociopath, so I can’t comment on how faithfully the film captures the character, but Matt Damon’s performance as Ripley stands on its own as one of his finest. Ripley is a young man scraping a living on the margins, with his face pressed against the window while he observes the seductive world of wealth. By a sheer accident, he is mistaken by the shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf for a friend of his son when he spots Ripley’s borrowed Princeton jacket. Ripley happily plays along, and is hired by Greenleaf to take a paid trip to Italy in order to convince his wayward jazz-loving son Dickie to come back home. What a gig!
Very soon, Ripley is busy ingratiating himself into the lives of Dickie and his fiancée Marge (Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow), who are the epitome of gilded privileged youth and beauty. I’ve never fancied Jude Law myself, but whatever your tastes or sexual orientation, you’d be hard-pressed to rate his looks anywhere below “Greek god” in this movie. Ripley’s spot-on impersonation skills and a feigned love for jazz draw Dickie in, while Marge finds his awkwardness endearing.
His mission all but forgotten, Ripley falls in love with Dickie’s carefree Italian lifestyle, as well as Dickie himself. At the time of its original release, the film’s queerness was somewhat swept under the carpet, but on a rewatch, the charged scene in which fully dressed Ripley plays chess with Dickie who’s soaking in a bath is really upfront about putting Ripley’s infatuation out there. Eventually, self-centred and callous Dickie grows bored with Ripley’s earnest puppyish devotion, and things take a tragic turn when Dickie’s taunts drive Ripley into a murderous rage. But then fate gives him another golden opportunity, if he can think on his feet fast enough, to assume Dickie’s identity and keep on enjoying the lifestyle he’s grown addicted to.
It’s a massive credit to Damon that the film doesn’t dip in any way after the departure of its most dazzling and charismatic player, and that despite the terrible things Ripley does, you’re invested in his character as he weaves his web of deceit and tries to juggle his dual identities. Though he is coldly calculating and ruthless, there’s still vulnerability and yearning for genuine connection in Damon’s intricate and sensitive performance. One must also mention the excellent supporting turns from Cate Blanchett, playing a naive rich heiress who falls for Ripley in his Dickie Greenleaf disguise, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie’s obnoxious old friend who exemplifies all the worst things about inherited money and instantly picks Ripley for a mooch. In an alternate universe, Hoffman would have been a perfect casting for Bunny Corcoran in a film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
I never warmed to (hah) Cold Mountain or The English Patient, Minghella’s two other sumptuous period dramas, but The Talented Mr. Ripley is a dark and stylish gem that deserves to be celebrated as a modern classic.