Hedging ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’


“The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a wonderfully accomplished work that’s unconvincing at its core. A lack of nerve, or perhaps a difference in temperament between filmmaker and author, has resulted in a beautifully mounted and directed film that, despite the presence of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, is unexpectedly lacking in emotional impact.

Presented with one of the most unnerving, breathtakingly amoral characters in modern literature, writer-director Anthony Minghella worried that the audience would resist committing themselves to such a chilling protagonist. So he monkeyed with the delicate balance of forces and personalities that make the novel memorable, a move that ended up backfiring and making Tom Ripley less interesting rather than more.


Ripley and his chilling adventures are the subject of five novels by the late Patricia High-smith, whose first book, “Strangers on a Train,” was turned into the memorable Alfred Hitchcock film. Other filmmakers have been attracted to the Highsmith series; Alain Delon starred in an earlier version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (Rene Clement’s “Purple Noon”) and Wim Wenders did a version of “Ripley’s Game,” the Dennis Hopper-starring “The American Friend.”


Writer-director Minghella, in his first film since the Oscar-winning “The English Patient,” would seem to be an excellent choice for this project, and in many ways he is. Working with such top-of-the-line collaborators as cinematographer John Seale, editor Walter Murch, composer Gabriel Yared, production designer Roy Walker and costume designers Ann Roth and Gary Jones, Minghella has a fine grasp of both the film’s gorgeous Italian atmosphere and its complex narrative line.

If only there was a compelling protagonist, all would be well. But there isn’t.

“Ripley” begins in Manhattan in 1958 with Tom (Damon) borrowing a Princeton blazer to accompany a singer at a tony reception. Eyeing the jacket, shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) asks if Tom knew his son Dickie Greenleaf at the school.

Not only did Ripley not know young Greenleaf, he didn’t go to Princeton and is presently employed as a men’s room attendant. Naturally, he admits to none of this and when Greenleaf senior offers him $1,000 to go to Italy and convince his wastrel son, whose “only talent is for spending his allowance,” to come home, Tom is eager to agree.

Wanting to blend in with Dickie, a jazz fanatic, Tom undertakes an intense study of the music before he leaves New York. In fact, Tom’s entire experience can be looked at as the story of a young man finding his vocation, of someone with a talent for deception and impersonation, a gifted improviser with the truth, finding a life path that suits him.

Tom accidentally-on-purpose runs into Dickie (Jude Law) and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Paltrow) on the beach at Mongibello (most of the shooting was done on Ischia in the Bay of Naples). Despite having the whitest skin on the continent, Tom manages to ingratiate himself with Dickie, and he soon agrees to be a double agent, to string Mr. Greenleaf senior along even though his son is unlikely ever to return to the U.S.

The more Tom hangs out with Dickie, the more he experiences his sybaritic lifestyle, the more he finds it suits him. “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live,” Tom tells Dickie at one point, carefully studying him like a book he wishes he’d written himself.


In the Highsmith novel, Tom is a shark among guppies, an ice-cold cleaver cutting easily through the soft putty of American expatriate lives. As played by Damon, very much out of character, Tom is all gawky earnestness, determined to get what he wants in a nerdy sort of way. Insecure, vulnerable but disturbing, this Tom lacks the jaw-dropping fascination of High-smith’s character but has nothing of real interest to put in its place.

Another critical change from the book is to make Tom more explicitly gay and his physical attraction to Dickie that much more specific. This was just under the surface in the novel and, frankly, it made for more dramatic tension that way. Plus, making Tom gay mandated further changes to an already contorted plot.

Damon does the best he can here, but this role is off-putting without playing to his strengths. Paltrow’s part as the long-suffering “I make a fabulous martini” Marge is also undernourished, but, on the other hand, much of the supporting cast is well chosen and really sparkles.


Law, a top young British actor, brings the right kind of savoir-faire to Dickie Greenleaf, and Cate Blanchett, last seen as “Elizabeth,” is excellent as uncertain expatriate Meredith Logue. Best of all is the unstoppable Philip Seymour Hoffman. His role as the thuggish, arrogant, red-convertible-driving Freddie Miles, one of Dickie’s best friends, is pitch perfect.

It’s yet another of the memorable framing details that make us wish that the central portrait of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was worth all this care.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and brief nudity. Times guidelines: Violent deaths aren’t overly graphic.


‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’

Matt Damon: Tom Ripley

Gwyneth Paltrow: Marge Sherwood

Jude Law: Dickie Greenleaf

Cate Blanchett: Meredith Logue

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Freddie Miles

James Rebhorn: Herbert Greenleaf

Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films present a Mirage Enterprises/Timnick Films production, distributed by Paramount Pictures. Director Anthony Minghella. Producers William Horberg, Tom Sternberg. Executive producer Sydney Pollack. Screenplay Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Cinematographer John Seale. Editor Walter Murch. Costumes Ann Roth, Gary Jones. Music Gabriel Yared. Production design Roy Walker. Art director Stefano Ortolani. Set decorator Bruno Cesari. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.

In general release.