With the recurring character of Tom Ripley, author Patricia Highsmith created an amoral antihero whose actions matched the lethal precision of her prose. Starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Tom appeared in five Highsmith novels written in a style so spartan and straightforward that it appears artless. That is until the moment readers realize that Highsmith has slyly ensnared them in the world according to Ripley, where murder is an inconvenient — albeit necessary — part of existence, and guilt, along with remorse, is not part of the equation.
For his film version of Ripley’s maiden voyage, writer-director Anthony Minghella chooses to see the character in a drastically different light. Tom may be a chameleon and opportunist, but he’s essentially an innocent, driven to violence by circumstance and the betrayals of callow friends.
He does share one crucial trait with Highsmith’s version: He’s a relentless social climber. Why should wealth and privilege be squandered on the rich, Tom wonders, when someone like him (who possesses refined taste but no trust fund) would make better use of it?
So Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) recognizes an opportunity when he sees one. A shipping magnate mistakes Tom for a Princeton classmate of his feckless son and sends Ripley to Italy to retrieve Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) from the corrupting influences of jazz, la dolce vita and his girlfriend, fellow American expatriate Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow).
In quick succession, Tom falls in love with Dickie’s carefree lifestyle and the impetuous and charismatic Dickie himself, who treats life as an endless cycle of indulgences and pleasure with no ramifications. So Minghella stages the story’s pivotal moment — when Ripley kills Dickie Greenleaf — as the desperate action of a jilted suitor instead of the premeditated assassination Highsmith envisioned, which renders everything that follows extremely problematic.
Following the mantra "it’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," Tom Ripley appropriates the golden boy identity of his deceased friend along with all the entitlements the Greenleaf name and fortune offer. The remainder of this too-long film (139 minutes) details the desperate measures Ripley must go to in order to maintain his tenuous charade.
Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, a peculiar combination of cunning calculation and searing desperation (whose sexuality was as flexible as his loyalties), was better captured in the 1960 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), as well as Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), based on Ripley’s Game.
Minghella (The English Patient, Truly Madly Deeply) has every right to radically reinterpret Ripley. But by steadfastly refusing to cast him as a villain, Minghella defangs Ripley, rendering him so weak and unfocused that Damon’s surprisingly subtle and complex performance all but goes to waste.
The Talented Mr. Ripley lovingly recreates 1950s Italy, gloriously intoxicated by a postwar boom and overrun by a new breed of beautiful, aimless young people. It’s too bad Minghella was so seduced by this lovely facade that he forgot to look beyond it.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.