Its been nearly twenty years since the release of The Talented Mr. Ripley. I haven’t seen a screening in over ten and so it was a nice surprise to pick up a $3 copy at a charity store and an excuse for a night in.
Some of these films date over time but this one stands the test. From Patricia Highsmith’s novel of 1955, the 1999 film is directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and has a stellar cast with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett. It’s hard to believe the film isn’t better recognized for this reason alone. It did garner five Academy Award nominations in 1999.
Tom Ripley’s iconic catchphrase “It’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody” is the kernel of the drama that unfolds in a Felliniesque,1950’s dream-like filmic sequence that can only be described as gorgeous.
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) discovers his dream can be reality as he unwittingly lands himself in the ‘party set’ of the privileged class amidst opera goers with their yachts, limos and Venetian mansions. His life as usher and hotel servant is transformed in an instant. How does it happen? After bumming around as a nobody in New York he is invited to a high class cocktail party where he borrows a Princeton blazer. He looks the part and is offered a job to rescue the philandering Ivy league son of a shipping magnate from southern Italy named Dickie (played by 90’s heartthrob, Jude Law) and from his never ending party lifestyle. Understandably, he cannot believe his luck. He is from the wrong end of town and his life has more to do with jack-rolling and meths than with Campari and jazz. But he is the monster in disguise, a ferocious, zealous opportunist desperate to seize the chance he is given. Unbeknown to the polite magnate, he is, in reality a fox in a hen house – a talented psychopath. Three murders later he has taken to his new found lifestyle aided by his creepy impersonations and signature forging skills. With Dickie dead and inheriting his fortune thanks to the father’s misdirected sentiment, he basks in upper class idleness but with suspicions abound.
Behind the sinister drama there seems to be something equally creepy playing out. As a viewer you can find yourself strangely sympathetic to Ripley’s plight as he manoeuvres from one difficulty to the next with seemingly endless disguise and deceit. Maybe this is intentional on the director’s part. After all, the story is shot from Ripley’s perspective. You see what appears to be a troubled innocent boy taking a chance and learning from those around him who welcome him into their fold. He falls in love with them as much as their life style and quickly assimilates. Dickie shows him the life of the rich, jazz loving dilettante. They go to smokey jazz clubs together as Bird and Dizzy wannabes. Ripley learns to live in the moment like Dickie – like their music improvising idols – something that is not lost on him as he scarily mimics Chet Bakers’ My Funny Valentine.
The film came out before 9-11, before the iPhone and social media. Its really from another world. At the time it harked back to another era conjuring a romantic world that is even more remote twenty years on. What Ripley does in the film is what we now unapologetically call gate-crashing and you don’t have to play the trumpet to be in the moment– we do yoga for that. Perhaps this has helped the film endure. The Talented Mr. Ripley is still as haunting as ever.