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The Talented Mr Ripley

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I'd forgotten how enjoyable The Talented Mr Ripley is until I watched it again last night. Matt Damon is both geeky and ghoulish as Tom Ripley, the preppy misfit who unravels into a dangerous sociopath, Jude Law is compelling as the beautiful, spoiled Dickie Greenleaf, and once again Philip Seymour Hoffman steals every scene he's in, this time as the privileged yet sinister Freddie Miles. The actors may be highly watchable, but the movie wouldn't work without its backdrop – Italy. Even though it's set in the Sixties, there is a timeless quality to the landscape in which the story unravels. 

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The movie opens on an elegant rooftop overlooking New York's Central Park, and it's here that Tom Ripley first meets Dickie Greenleaf's father. Soon after, Ripley is aboard an ocean liner headed for Italy, paid by Mr Greenleaf to bring his son home. As Ripley's world expands eastwards, the movie explodes into color and sunshine. He arrives in the fictional town of Mongibello, which is all cobbled streets, peeling-paint walls, and vespas.

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It's here that he finds Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) lounging on deck chairs on an unfeasibly sunny beach (second from top, filmed at Bagno Antonio). Most of the 'Mongi' scenes were shot on Ischia Island in the Bay of Naples, under the watch of the dramatic Castello Aragonese. The characters come and go throughout the movie, but it's this backdrop that comes to symbolize their idyllic but idle, decadent youth. Buildings in sepia and whitewash flow down the slopes and tumble towards the sea. It's a world of stone, brightly-colored flowers, sunshine and glorious aimlessness. Like Dickie, Mongibello dances, golden and carefree.

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Tom follows the adulterous Dickie through cobbled streets (shot on the nearby island of Procida), and later to Naples, Rome and San Remo. The movie is a great guided tour of some of the country's more famous landmarks. Freddie Miles alights from a gorgeous red sports car in the Piazza Navona (above) and the young men while away hours in a cafe in the Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps. The costume designers have worked hard to recreate the fashions of the early Sixties, but the result is subtle – this world doesn't feel all that different from today's Italy.  

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It's a hugely appealing world, that of young, rich Americans idling away the Italian summer. But as the locals in Mongibello pull a statue of the Madonna (and something far more sinister) out of the sea, the sky turns dark and the story follows it. Tom and Dickie, who have become fast friends, start to drift apart. Marge consoles Tom with the words: 'It's like the sun shines on you and it's glorious. Then he forgets you and it's very, very cold.' The gentle yet dazzling seaside imagery changes as the young men decamp to San Remo then Rome.

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Dickie disappears and Marge becomes increasingly distressed. The fortress at Ischia is seen for the first time in the dark, and her world is still beautiful, but suddenly threatening. The final acts of the movie twist and turn in the city of disguises, Venice. Scenes are shot among the pigeons and the cafes of St Mark's Square, in the shadow this time of the Basilica di San Marco

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I don't think you could watch The Talented Mr Ripley purely as a travelog – Matt Damon alone is just too distracting. However, it might be worth watching twice, once to savor the plot as it unravels, and the second time to enjoy the view. Watching this, it's hard to imagine a country more picturesque than Italy, and this film is a great opportunity to savor its sheer elegance. As it draws to a close, you may be left with a bad taste in your mouth, but it's probably a feeling you could easily remove by heading to the nearest piazza and ordering an espresso. – Roshan McArthur

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  • Jonathan

    August 14, 2016

    It’s “Mache dich mein herze rein”, part of the Matthew Passion by Bach.

    Thank you for your review. This is my all-time favourite movie.

  • daniel

    April 14, 2008

    do you know what the name of the classical piece was when tom was on the ocean liner and in the rolls royce headed for Italy?

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