Sorry unseasoned Ripley fledglings, more spoilers than a joyriders’ convention…
Matt Damon has played clever (Good Will Hunting, Bourne). He’s played nasty (School Ties, Dogma). But, as Tom Ripley, he absolutely nails sinister. Somehow evoking pity as well as hatred, he successfully portrays the disturbed man that is Ripley. Written by Patricia Highsmith, who penned Hitchcock’s famous Strangers on a Train, the film was bound to be a success under the sturdy direction of Anthony Minghella (fresh from The English Patient). This isn’t, however, a straight ‘who’s better; Highsmith or Minghella?’ analysis, but more a look at which medium works more effectively for a tense psychological thriller such as this.
The book is able to give a background into Tom’s upbringing, painting a turbulent childhood thanks to his Aunt and the loss of his parents. The film, despite criticism over being a shade long, has no time for explanation which perhaps detracts from the level of sympathy the book is able to induce. But, in the same way that every mystery is exciting until you find the logical explanation, the film is intriguing because you don’t have the luxury of knowing Tom’s background, of why he covets Dickie’s (Jude Law’s) lifestyle. And what a lifestyle it is! Law oozes charm and smarm in equal measure, perfectly realising the magnetic Mr. Greenleaf.
Boys-wise, both the film and the book have achieved the tense and frenetic relationship between Tom and Dickie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is on top form as the sleazy Freddie Miles. It’s with the girls in the story that everything becomes a little less comfortable. The main issue is Marge. Fixated with Dickie, she acts as the parallel to Tom. In the book, Dickie has a superior, almost epistemic distance set between him and his devotees. In the film however, he and Marge are painted as young lovers, clearly close and soon to be married. Surely it is much more interesting to have the aloofness and reserve between the trio; Tom trying to be Dickie, Marge trying to be with Dickie, and Dickie, just getting on with being Dickie. Described as a plump girl-scout figure on the page, it’s hard to draw many similarities between that ideal and the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s just too likeable to be Marge, who, by rights, should be annoying, silly and irksome (at least to Tom).
The addition of Meredith however (played by Cate Blanchett) in the film works incredibly well. Not only is it a break from the main character triangle, but it gives Tom the chance to live Dickie’s life to the letter. Not only can he wear the clothes and talk the talk but he can get the girl! On top of this conquest of sorts, Tom later has a relationship with Peter (the tremendous Jack Davenport). Described as a mere acquaintance in the book, the film paints Peter as Tom’s passionate lover, again displaying Tom’s humanity. Damon and Davenport are fantastic in their scenes together but you can’t help thinking; ‘this is not Tom Ripley!’ Tom Ripley doesn’t have friends or lovers; he has a disctinct lack of humanity about him, which makes for such an interesting character. However, it’s fair to say that both Blanchett and Davenport add an extra texture and excitement to the story.
Which is better then, the book or the film? The book provides a more in-depth profile analysis of the characters involved and especially hones in on the three leads. The film doesn’t quite reach the same level of intricacy, but, being a film, it is forgiven due to the lack of time at its disposal. The characters are also just a bit too likeable; it’s slightly too Hollywood to be real, but, overall, the film wins. The casting and ensuing acting is superb, the shots of Italy especially beautiful and the extended character group a welcome alteration to the book. Damon not getting an Oscar nod is absurd! The soundtrack works well and we are treated at one point to Law playing saxophone whilst Damon actually sings My Funny Valentine. Anyone who watches this film will leave with, at the very least, a more than healthy respect for the man!