The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

by jserpico


Queer Ripley

Amidst all the hoopla shouting of the probable Oscar proliferation showering upon The Talented Mr. Ripley; the ongoing comparisons (of the original series of novels by Patricia, the French film Purple Noon, and Anthony Minghella’s creation); and glowing appreciation for Minghella’s assembly of the most fashionable young and beautiful, there lie hidden a few very nasty notions regarding homosexuality. Unlike the previous cinematic version and the Highsmith series, here Ripley’s homosexual status is emphasized. Gone are the surreptitiously longing gazes offered up by Alain Delon at the object of his desire, and the read-between-the-lines homoeroticism in the novels. Here, Damon/Ripley may not be out and proud, but the character’s gayness is central to Minghella’s version/vision.

This particular characterization is not automatically problematic per se. And a director re-writing a novel or previous film to suit his or her ideas is hardly a new notion. Yet with this particular revision, it seems fitting to analyze the results. Minghella evidently believed it appropriate to restructure the story in such a way as to highlight and emphasize Ripley’s homosexuality. And if it’s unproductive to ask the unanswerable question of why he did this, it may be illuminating to consider how it works out in the film.

cover art

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

US theatrical: 25 Dec 1999 (General release)

The two moments in the film where the serial killer Ripley’s gayness is affirmed through a physical connection with the desired other occur specifically just before, during, or directly after he has murdered someone. The confirmation and consummation of his sexuality is thus conjoined with his murderous sociopathology. This presentation inextricably merges the homicidal Ripley with the queer Ripley. There can be no effective separation between the two when they are placed together as layers embedded within each other. These two sides yet again converge in scenes involving the one character created by Minghella (the heterosexual female Meredith Logue [Cate Blanchett] who remains unscathed by Ripley); and another character whom Minghella expands into a love interest for Ripley (the self-identified — that is, out — homosexual male Peter Smith-Kingsley [Jack Davenport], who suffers a much sadder fate).

These characterizations cannot be called accidental, particularly with regard to a writer-director heralded to be as fiercely meticulous as Minghella. Perhaps the above comments are rash and fail to see these depictions as mere aspects of Tom, a gay man who unfortunately happens to live in a fiercely closeted and homophobic world (not so long ago, in the late 1950s). In such a view Tom would seem to be sadly suffering from a horribly displaced, murderous self-abhorrence.

But this film is not a subversive, controversial gay rights tale documenting the overall effects of toxic homophobia, nor is it meant to be. It is a suspense film released by Miramax over the holiday season for maximum financial and Oscar-related benefits. It is a film that takes its apparent premise — Tom is gay and he kills — and contorts it to such a degree that another very different reading —Tom kills because he is gay — rears its ugly head.

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