The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

reviewed by
Michael Elliott

Christian Critic's Movie Parables -

(opens December 25)
* * out of * * * * stars

DIRECTED BY: Anthony Minghella STARRING: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport WRITTEN BY: Anthony Minghella RATED: R for violence, language, and brief nudity SCRIPTURE REFERENCES: James 3:16, Job 5:2, Proverbs 14:30

It is a sin to waste one's talent. And it is a sad pity to sit by and watch someone else do it. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY tells a sad tale of a capable but unhappy and deeply troubled young man who desires a life other than the one he has been given.

Matt Damon (DOGMA) plays the sociopathic pianist/bathroom attendant Tom Ripley who is quick to confess that his primary talent is in mimicry. Mistaken for a Princeton graduate, he is hired by a frustrated father to fly to Italy and convince his wayward son (and fellow Princetonian) to return to the United States.

Recognizing a good deal when one falls in his lap, Tom readily agrees. Even before setting foot on Italian soil, he is already introducing himself as Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, EXISTENZ), the young playboy he was sent to retrieve. One taste of Dickie's lifestyle is enough to convince Tom that this life is infinitely better than the one he left behind. Little did he realize at the time the trap he was setting for himself.

After ingratiating himself to Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow, A PERFECT MURDER), Tom becomes inseparable from them. Figuring it is better to be "a fake somebody than a real nobody," he successfully reinvents himself to fit in with the "manor born" crowd. When Dickie eventually tires of his continual company, it is no surprise to find that Tom is not so agreeable to leave.

Upon Dickie's demise, Tom decides to adopt his identity and stay in Italy. This will present a bit of a problem as many already know him as Tom Ripley and many know what Dickie Greenleaf really looks like. Thus begins a series of duplicitous hoops through which Tom must jump just to keep his lies believable and his crimes undiscovered.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is more a character study than a genuine thriller. Mr. Damon does a fine (even if somewhat unnerving) job in portraying a man with severe psychological problems. Quick-witted and even tempered, Tom's surface demeanor belies the turmoil and conflicts raging within his heart.

Jude Law is well cast as a privileged rich child who completely and totally disrespects the very source of his privilege. Spoiled beyond words, his character, Dickie, uses people as others might use old newspaper. And yet his charismatic personality attracts people to him as effortlessly as a light captures a moth's attention (oftentimes with the same disastrous results).

Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett (PUSHING TIN) lend their considerable talents to the film but play relatively insubstantial characters, serving as pawns in the misguided Ripley's mental chess game.

Writer/director Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) working from Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel, has set the film in the late fifties, a dynamic time in Italy's history. While focusing on the novel's concept of changing one's life by stealing the more desirable life of another, he has made a number of textual modifications to the original tale.

An added plot device which, for me, neither enhanced nor contributed to the appreciation of the source material was the introduction of homosexual elements. Subtly introduced a quarter of the way into the film, the homosexuality of certain central characters eventually becomes a dominant, driving force in the film's story. It was not needed and served to weaken the overall impact of this psychological study.

Ripley is a tragic figure. He is made tragic by his inability to recognize his own self worth. Whenever we envy the life of another, we fail to be thankful for all we already have. Envy leads to discontent which opens the mind's door for all kinds of devilish thought and action.

"For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work." James 3:16 [KJV]

When we live with the awareness that God is our sufficiency and that we are uniquely created in Him, we are able to appreciate the lives of others without being desirous of the lives they lead. God would have you be thankful for your own life. After all... He is.

Michael Elliott
December 1999

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