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The Talented Mr Ripley: An exploration into individuality and narcissism

A revisit on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, starring Matt Damon as well as Jude Law, who turns 49 on the 28th of December

Ryan Gomez
Dec 27, 2021
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Tom Ripley is one of the most iconic fictional characters ever imagined. Created by Patricia Highsmith for the ‘Ripley’ series of novels, the story follows the mysterious yet talented Tom Ripley. The character has inspired several film adaptations over the years. But none has been as widely discussed and dissected as Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley released in 1999. The film is also widely regarded as the career-best performance for both Matt Damon and Jude Law. While Jude Law excelled and rightfully received an Academy Award nomination, it is Damon’s performance that deserves special recognition. Damon’s Ripley is a character playing another character. In other words, Damon has made subtle changes throughout the film to distinguish Tom Ripley and the person he is pretending to be.

Tom Ripley is an enigma at his core, and for the vast majority of the film the audience is obliged to feel empathetic towards him, and by the end of the film, it turns to sympathy. The narrative introduces Damon as an unassuming and intelligent young man trying to make his way up the status quo. But his greatest flaw, asset, and curse are also evident in the opening scene — compulsive lying. He is shown to be quick-witted and has an air of innocence and boyish charm that makes him likeable. It is what draws him to the audience, and the characters in the film. This can be easily analysed through Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Marge Sherwood. Tom is quick to exploit Marge’s kindness in order to gain Dickie Geeenleef’s (Jude Law) trust. As the film concludes its first act, Dickie is inseparable from Tom, after Tom successfully becomes a part of Dickie and Marge’s lives.

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Despite Tom’s manipulation, the narrative seems to suggest that he is genuinely fond of his new friends. Even though he’s been entrusted by Dickie’s father to bring Dickie back from Italy, Tom decides to stay with Dickie and Marge to enjoy the Utopian bliss he’s been enjoying ever since he set foot in Europe — almost to a point where he dreams that it will last forever. But unfortunately for Tom, Dickie is a wealthy man-child who is easily bored, as he himself explained in that fateful boat sequence in San Remo in the film. Jude Law’s performance as a carefree ‘trust fund baby’ perfectly compliments Ripley’s less affluent background and his compulsion to be recognised and admired. The boat scene is significant for several reasons, the most important being that it is the first time the audience come to terms with the fact that Tom Ripley is a sociopath.

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The murders he commits after the ‘boat scene’ are to protect himself alone. Even though he cares for others, he loves himself more than anything else in the world, on the same level as a narcissist. The three murders he commits, despite its common thread, are all for different purposes. He kills Dickie because Dickie belittled him and hits a nerve on something that he’s been trying to overcome his entire life, and it was an impulsive momentary burst of rage. Freddie’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) murder may have been about self-preservation on the surface level. But there is enough evidence to suggest that Tom would have eventually killed Freddie, as Freddie was the living embodiment of everything Tom despised. Whereas his final murder is the one that firmly defines his true personality.

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Tom’s killing of Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) is out of necessity to eliminate anything or anyone that could threaten to expose the web of lies and the murders he has committed. He had a choice of killing either Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) or Peter, but the choice was soon made as killing Meredith became impossible. Killing Peter is arguably the one that pained him the most, as it wasn’t impulsive or an act out of desperation, it was a premeditated cold-blooded murder of a person he cared for. It leaves the audience with a sense of sadness for both Tom’s victims and Tom himself.

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The film is an undisputed masterpiece, Minghella’s deft and nuanced approach to filmmaking has crafted a film that explores individuality. Tom is someone who struggles to define his sexuality and his being, but he is supremely confident of his talents and his worth. His innate ability to impersonate anyone is his tool to live the life he always desired. In fact, as mentioned, Matt Damon pulls it off with ease. It is almost ironic that Damon would later play a character with similar attributes, who killed people across Europe - Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. While his chameleon-like abilities are never explicitly shown in the films, Robert Ludlum, the author of the novels, described him as a man who could assume multiple identities with ease.

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Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is, however, not a government assassin like Jason Bourne. He is a relatable Machiavellian antihero who struggles with identifying with himself. A new TV adaptation of the novels titled Ripley is in the works with Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, set to play the lead as the talented and mysterious Tom Ripley.


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