The Talented Mister Ripley

Smothered in thick, rich homoerotic frosting
Anthony Minghella
Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Setup: 
Guy kills other guy, adopts his identity.

I had seen this when it was out in theaters, and wasn’t too impressed, but was energized to see it again, having recently read the novel as part of my mystery novel obsession. The novel was unexpectedly MUCH better than this movie would have had me believe, really rather marvelous, and this version [it had previously been made as French film Purple Noon] was supposed to hew closer to the source, so on it went. This version actually proves to make significant changes to the book, some necessary for film compression, some from the filmmaker’s imagination, so there will be lots of novel-to-adaptation comparison here. So let’s rock!

We open with little shards of an image of Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, meant to show us Ripley’s fractured identity. A borrowed jacket results in Dickie Greenleaf’s parents assuming that he went to Princeton with their son, and soon Mr. Greenleaf offers to fund a trip for Tom to go find Dickie and convince him to come back to the States. Dickie rejects his parents’ bourgeois ideals and has no intentions of returning. All of this is an acknowledged variation on Henry James’ The Ambassadors. Dickie’s Dad has mentioned that Dickie like jazz, so we see Tom trying to bring himself up to speed there so he can come off as knowledgeable to Dickie, and before you know it, he’s in Italy, spying on Dickie and his girlfriend Marge from his window.

Already we have some significant departures from the novel. The main thing that impressed me about the book is that Ripley is not a devious mastermind with a plan, he’s just a everyday sociopath who enjoys deception, and much of what happens in the novel is just improvisation as he goes along. He is also quite poor and yearns for money and fine things. So this film portrays him as much more devious and premeditated from the start. The film also has him impersonating Dickie right up front, in meeting Cate Blanchett as Meredith first thing in Italy. So novel-wise, the character is just ringing wrong, but we’re prepared to accept that this is compression for the sake of paring the story down for film.

So Tom meets Dickie and Marge on the beach, pretending to know Dickie from school. The movie has trouble getting across what a total DORK Tom is at the beginning, as well. The movie has Tom say right up front that his “talent” is forging signatures and impersonating people, which is a big character departure, but the movie does score an interesting scene in having Tom do a dead-on impression of Dickie’s Dad, and use this up front to tell Dickie that Tom has been sent to bring him back. This is what earns Dickie’s trust, and soon Tom, Dickie and Marge are all hanging out together quite a bit.

The movie adds a lot of jazz music to the story, which works fairly well, but the real change is to take what was a light homoerotic sheen of the novel and turn it into a thick homoerotic frosting the entire movie is slathered with. Most noticeable at first when Tom attends Dickie taking a bath, and Tom says “I’m cold, can I get in?” Dickie says no, and gets out, and catches Tom flagrantly checking out his ass in the mirror. This is not appreciated by the quite heterosexual Dickie. Then Phillip Seymour Hoffmann shows up as the obnoxious Freddie Myles, and Dickie tries to ditch Tom for the afternoon. The movie makes clear that Tom is intensely jealous, and you’ll notice a small touch—when Tom finally leaves, he passes two men being quite romantic in an alley just outside; one man sitting on the other man’s lap. Dickie returns later and finds Tom playing dress-up in Dickie’s clothes, and if you look at the frame below you will get an example of the way mirrors are used in this movie to suggest shades of identity or, in this case, one person’s identity “inside” another person.

So Tom is pulling himself closer, and Dickie is starting to get creeped out. Eventually Tom is called back to the US, and Dickie says it’s a good idea that he go. They are going to take a final trip to San Remo, and on the train, Tom snuggles close to Dickie’s sleeping form and breathes in his scent. He also looks at their reflection in the window and imagines that they are kissing [below]. NONE of this is in the novel. The two of them take a boat out to the middle of the ocean, where Tom suggests that they move in together. He is quite forward with declaring his love for Dickie, but Dickie says Tom is a “leech” and “quite boring.” Tom then says, in vague words, he KNOWS that Dickie is in love with him, too, but too afraid to admit being homosexual. They have a fight, and finally Tom clubs Dickie to death.

This represents a massive change to the novel, as for one, NO WAY was Tom this openly homosexual in the novel. The most homoerotic he got was not minding that people might think that he and Dickie were lovers. Furthermore, by this time, he WAS premeditatedly planning to murder Dickie in the boat, whereas this movie makes it look like he acted out of sudden rage that Dickie has rejected his advances. And this is one of those examples where making the homoerotic subtext into the homosexual TEXT makes the entire thing far less interesting. They keep it up by showing Ripley laying in a romantic embrace with Dickie’s corpse. Hey guys, you know what? We GET it.

The movie continues to try to have it any way it can by making it seem that it hadn’t occurred to Tom to adopt Dickie’s identity, when in the novel that was his entire intention when they took the boat out. Tom runs into Meredith again—recall she thinks he’s Dickie—and they go to the opera, where they run into Marge—who knows him as Tom. Now begins a bunch of machinations as Tom has to shuttle back and forth between being Tom and Dickie, even writing letters from Dickie to Tom, and turning Marge and others away, saying Dickie had just been there, but must have left early or something. This comes to a head as obnoxious Freddie Myles realizes that something is up, and Tom kills him—with a bust of Hadrian, to continue hammering home the gay theme. Then the police get involved, questioning Tom as Dickie, who must avoid Marge, who knows that he’s Tom.

Marge is also wildly different in the novel. There she was portrayed as an extremely insipid sentimentalist, and one of the amusing threads is how thoroughly Ripley secretly DESPISES her. At one point she is in Venice, trailing her hand in the canal, and Tom fantasizes a shark will bite it off. It is a bit uncanny, in the novel, the way Highsmith captures the petty hatred some gay people can have for women, especially when they feel the woman doesn’t deserve the man they’re with. In the movie Marge is Gwenyth Paltrow, who can’t be portrayed as an immature fool, so Marge becomes a wronged loyal lover whose heart is broken in the most despicable way.

Also new and totally different is the addition, out of the clear blue sky, of this character Peter, gay friend of Marge’s. He’s there for Tom to start being attracted to, and for Tom to want a relationship with, which may be prevented by Tom’s murderous past, causing Tom to rue his ways. This is the real final dollop that officially makes this “a gay movie,” and marks it as a complete revision of the novel.

With this additional character, and the vastly beefed-up Meredith, the movie finds itself having to pile on complications toward the end—including a whole new murder, not in the book at all—when the book was elegantly winding down. So the last 20 minutes of this movie can become pretty interminable, as they just keep throwing new complications on the pile.

The novel ends with Ripley sure he’s about to be caught, and then the sudden realization that he got away with it ALL, and made himself rich in the process. Crime pays! The movie ends with Tom wrapped up in a bunch of new complications, with the implication that he’ll just keep improvising. We have a bunch of images of Tom in swinging mirrors, which returns us to the first image, Tom’s fractured identity, etc.

Well, as I’ve enumerated, it just isn’t as good as the novel. As a movie on its own, it’s kind of a decent enough highbrow thriller, but not so decent that I would imagine anyone LOVES this movie. It’s all very respectable and VERY Miramax, but not really all that interesting. Damon was a little inexperienced for this role at the time, and the character isn’t allowed to be as interesting as he was in the novel. Law is perfect, as is Hoffman, and Paltrow is good for this version of Marge—it’s just that this Marge is so much less interesting. If you like this movie, you really owe it to yourself to read the novel, which is so much better in so many ways—ways you would have no way of knowing from watching this movie. Yeah, this is fine, but I can’t really think of any circumstances in which one would want to watch it.

Should you watch it: 

Up to you. It won’t kill you, but ultimately it’s just not that great.

PURPLE NOON is an earlier French version of this story, and I recall it being pretty good.