The Talented Mr Ripley

Director: Anthony Minghella (USA). Year of Release: 1999

It all started with a borrowed jacket. Tom Ripley was many things. He was a shoe shine boy, a piano tuner – he was even one of those people who hang around in uniform in posh toilets waiting for a tip. What he wasn’t was a Princeton graduate. But when he did someone a favour, and accompanied a singer at a party for rich people, they lent him their jacket, which had a Princeton Class of 56 crest on the lapel.

This was where he was spotted by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf. Greenleaf’s son Dickie was also in the Class of 56, but has gone off to Southern Italy, where he’s wasting his time sun bathing and listening to jazz. Greanleaf assumes that Tom is an old University friend of Dickie, and Tom does nothing to disabuse him of this notion. Soon, Greenleaf is offering $1000 and free travel for Tom to go to Italy and bring Dickie home.

Tom insinuates into the company of Dickie and his fiancée Marge. Dickie has no recollection of Tom (natch) and initially finds him a bit boring. But Tom sets up a scene where he drops a bagful of jazz records. Suddenly Dickie is taking him to a club, and inviting him to stay. Like the best deceivers, Tom knows that he should tell the occasional truth. So he explains his mission to bring Dickie back to his father, which only increases his kudos.

Dickie is prone to making broad statements which sound impressive until you think about them and recognise their inner blandness. After saying that everyone should have one talent, he asks Tom what his talent is. Tom answers forging signatures, telling lies and impersonating almost anyone. In the long term, he will do all of this in the course of the film. In the short term, he gives a frighteningly accurate impersonation of Dickie’s father.

The film takes a massive shift after about an hour (this is a looong film, so we’re nowhere near halfway yet). Dickie and Tom go boating, Tom signals to the audience that he is in love with Dickie, Dickie seems to miss this, but makes clear that Tom is starting to bore him again and should probably return to the US. Tom has got used to his opulent lifestyle and prefers to cave Dickie’s head in and assume his identity.

The rest of the film consists of the steps that Tom takes to avoid being caught out. There are more narrow misses than your average farce, and sleights of hand that show that although Tom makes the occasional mistake, he is very quick at regaining ground. It is immaculately plotted, which presumably owes thanks to both director Anthony Minghella and Patricia Highsmith who wrote the original book.

Tonight’s showing was one of a series to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Rollberg Cinema in Berlin-Neukölln. Although I haven’t enjoyed all the films, the programme selection has been astute – films that someone my age has seen at least once, which are old enough themselves for you to have largely forgotten what happens, but not so mainstream that you’ve watched them repeatedly since.

This has led to the odd disappointment – I really didn’t need to see The Virgin Suicides again – but, as in this case, pleasant surprizes. I don’t remember having any strong response to The Talented Mr Ripley when it came out – and I almost certainly missed much of its gay subplot. But seen again, it proves to be a well-crafted film, which is well worth another viewing. Even Jude Law is charming, rather than being just eminently punchable.

Looking at some of the old reviews, several reviewers guiltily admit that they found themselves rooting for Tom despite themselves. I had no such compunctions of guilt. Apart from the odd Italian walk-on part – like the woman who Dickie makes pregnant then abandons – he is the only person who was not born into money and privilege. He may be a bit psychopathic, but he’s not on the same level of entitled obnoxiousness as the rest of them.

There is a telling statement made by one of the characters. I don’t remember it precisely but it goes something like this: “Of course we rich people abhor money, but the only people we get on with are other rich people who also abhor money.” Take away her trust fund, and you know she’d be a gibbering wreck by the end of the week. The Talented Mr Ripley doesn’t labour the point, but it does make us ask, what is the point of the rich?

I’ve left all sorts of stuff out because Plot Spoilers, but you really need to go and see all that for yourself. I was expecting tonight’s cinema trip to be ok, but a bit long. In the end, I really enjoyed it.

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