The Terrible Loneliness of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Movies Features Matt Damon
The Terrible Loneliness of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Andrew Scott: Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, star of her five Ripliad books, has had many faces on screen. What lies beneath that shifting surface, however, tends to be much the same—the same arrogance, venom, emptiness. Writer/director Steven Zaillian’s new limited series Ripley is almost a slow cinema interpretation of Highsmith’s first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, but it again presents the shapeshifting con man as a manipulative and pitiless criminal, in the vein of all Ripliad adaptations.

All, that is, except for one.

In Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which turns 25 this year, Tom Ripley goes on more or less the same journey as he does in Zaillian’s show: Hired by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to convince his playboy son Dickie (Jude Law) to return home to New York, Tom (Matt Damon) tracks Dickie down to Italy’s Amalfi Coast and quickly becomes infatuated with his life there. Though Tom and Dickie initially enjoy a close friendship, after Dickie severs ties with the increasingly possessive Tom, Tom murders Dickie, hides the body and assumes his identity. Beginning a new life of luxurious liberty in Rome as Dickie, Tom soon finds the law—and Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow)—catching up.

Though the plot remains largely unchanged, where the 1999 film differs from Ripley is in the lengths it goes to to try to make this story more palatable. The late Minghella was a romantic filmmaker, who couldn’t help but make The Talented Mr. Ripley’s 1950s Italy look like the most glamorous place on earth. The director also made the choice to humanize his Ripley, having his more sociopathic behavior seem understandable, even relatable. Bringing a wide-eyed Boy Scout quality to the slippery Tom by casting the inherently pleasant Matt Damon, Minghella also subtly recalibrates Highsmith’s story in his screenplay, so it becomes not simply callousness or class envy that motivates his Ripley, but a terrible loneliness.

Where other screen Ripleys have seemed somewhat content to be loners, assured of their superiority over meager mortals, Minghella’s Ripley wants desperately to belong. And where other Ripleys have been characterized by an absence of feeling, Minghella’s Ripley almost feels too much. Any introvert who has experienced the sinking feeling of fading into the background as less inhibited types have commanded a room’s attention will feel it through Minghella’s Ripley, pushed aside whenever the force that is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s louche Freddie Miles enters the picture.

During Tom’s lone sojourn through Rome after Dickie drops him for a day of fun with Freddie, he appears insignificant amidst the beautiful, empty ruins, at one point staring blankly up from the foot of an enormous statue—a man dwarfed by giants. Meanwhile, the lonely wail of a saxophone rings out, as it does throughout the film. This is, along with Chet Baker’s achingly delicate “My Funny Valentine,” a recurring theme for Tom, a new jazz convert whose interest in the music probably doesn’t go far beyond how much it seems to make Dickie like him.

Where Highsmith’s Ripley may not have sexual urges at all—the author herself didn’t think Ripley was gay, while the character in her pages can seem interested in sex only insofar as it advances his plans—Minghella’s Ripley unambiguously wants. Though ill at ease with his sexuality (see the scene where Dickie sneeringly discovers Tom dancing flamboyantly around his apartment, ending with Tom begging Dickie not to tell anyone), Tom is an evidently queer man. He aches to be close to Dickie, holding him so tight during a scooter ride that he crushes his ribs, or asking to climb into the bath with him while they play a game of late-night chess together.

As Dickie, Jude Law is a vision of golden-haired self-possession, the kind of cocksure man’s man who the world seems to revolve around at the film’s moment in time. There is no doubt why Minghella’s Ripley, who so longs to fit in, feels all the ways he does about this man; this is someone who—unlike Tom—is completely comfortable in the world, and who everybody loves, says Marge, because in his presence it feels “like the sun shines on you, and it’s glorious.” Who wouldn’t want to live in the orbit of this man? Who wouldn’t dream of being this man? Who wouldn’t, if shamed and rejected by him, feel rage towards this man?

After Tom reveals his true self to Dickie on their fateful final boat ride together, Dickie likens Tom to “a little girl” who gives him “the creeps,” a withering rejection of Tom for who he really is: needy, sensitive, awkward, queer. Tom’s subsequent swinging of the oar at Dickie’s head reads here not as a premeditated act of murder, but as a crime of passion from the bullied, humiliated Tom towards the man he loves, and who he thought loved him back. After he kills Dickie, Tom holds the body as he and it float aimlessly in the waters of the Mediterranean. At the very moment that he finally has Dickie all to himself, Tom is alone again.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom’s decision to assume Dickie’s identity post-murder is a desperate attempt by Tom to cover his tracks as much as it is a bid to start over as a new man. Tom initially styles himself with more flash and confidence when playing Dickie, but Tom is no Dickie; his social life in Rome maxes out with a couple of dates with socialite Meredith (Cate Blanchett), to whom there seems little attraction on his part beyond how a relationship with her might make him seem more like a “normal” mid-20th century man. No matter how well he might impersonate another, Tom cannot escape himself. As Dickie, Tom still remains largely alone, unwrapping expensive Christmas gifts he presumably bought for himself and riding a flashy new scooter through the streets of Rome solo.

When Tom does find what seems to be a romantic connection with Peter Smith-Kingsley (a character mentioned briefly in Highsmith’s novel and upgraded to a key player in the story by Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley), we are allowed a glimpse of how happy Tom could be when he opens up to the right person. As Peter, Jack Davenport is as essential to the final act as Jude Law is to the first, being the gently life-affirming open book that Tom needs rather than the charming Adonis that he wanted in Dickie.

In the end, though, Tom must inevitably close himself off once more.

The way Minghella frames it, Tom has no choice but to kill Peter on the film’s climactic boat ride to Greece. Meredith, who still believes Tom is Dickie, happens to be on the same ship, with “a lot of co.”—surely Tom can’t murder them all—while Peter is the only person on board who knows who Tom really is. By the tortured logic of the film, Tom must sacrifice this man who loves him in order to evade capture and survive another day, as Dickie. But perhaps part of Tom also believes that continuing to play-act in Dickie’s high society world—to be, as Tom puts it, “a fake somebody rather than a real nobody”—might yet bring him the feeling of acceptance he desperately craves.

Right at the moment where this Ripley becomes unforgivable, The Talented Mr. Ripley ends. The parting shot is of Tom, alone in his cabin on the ship, the sound of Peter lovingly listing Tom’s attributes segueing into the sound of him being strangled. Minghella has succeeded in creating a version of Highsmith’s antihero who is about as sympathetic as he can be for a mainstream audience, but in the process the filmmaker has made him even tougher company.

There could have been no sequels for this Ripley. Where with other screen versions of Ripley—including Andrew Scott’s chillingly reptilian new iteration—there’s a perverse thrill to be had in watching the character succeed, Minghella’s Ripley offers no such thrills. It would have been unbearable to suffer any more with him, a pitiful figure who at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley is left haunted by the ghosts of people irretrievably gone from his life. As the credits roll on The Talented Mr. Ripley, we too part company with a man who appears surely doomed to be alone.

Brogan Morris is a London-based freelance writer and editor, whose writing on film can also be found at the BFI, The Guardian, BBC Culture and more. You can follow him on X formerly known as Twitter at @BroganJMorris.

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