Cine-East Film Club Presents #38: 1999, The Talented Mr Ripley (Anthony Minghella)

by George_East on February 23, 2014

Freddy Miles:  ‘How’s the peeping, Tommy?’

Three weeks ago yesterday Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest American actors of his generation was found dead in his West Village apartment, at the age of 46.   This week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation is dedicated to him.

I have chosen The Talented Mr Ripley as the film for this dedication because it is maybe the film which reveals the sheer extent of Seymour Hoffman’s talent more than any other.   It also happens to be the first film that Seymour Hoffman was in, in respect of which I really woke up to the hugeness of his ability.

He had, of course, been in films before.  The earliest conscious memory I have of him is as Scotty in Boogie Nights  – his turn in that is typically brilliant, but it is one among many superb performances.    He also turned up in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski  but as good as he was, that film was all about the iconic starring dudetastic role of Jeff Bridges.

But it was in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of  Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name that he first stole the show.    I suspect if you ask most people about the film, Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the snobbish cruel but observant Freddie Miles will be one of, if not the, initial thing that comes to mind.

It will probably also be the case that you will remember his role as having far more screen time that it does.   In fact, if you watch it again,  you will find that his total screen time is probably no more than 10 minutes in total.  He has five scenes.  That is all.  Four scenes back to back about 30 minutes in and then a final scene about an hour later.    Yet in those five scenes he demonstrates an acting quality in a different league to his fellow cast members.

For if truth be told The Talented Mr Ripley is not a great film.  It relies too much on visual and script clichés.   Italy is all singing priests, unquestioning religion and picture postcard landscapes.    The dialogue (also written by Minghella) has a tendency towards trailer-fodder (lines that appear to have been written in order to make an impact in a two minute advert for the film rather than integral to the characters).   The plot is a little too coincidence driven (every time Ripley looks like he’s gotten away with it, Meredith turns up to complicate things).   The direction is competent craftsmanship rather than art. And of course it has Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf – he is good enough as the empty playboy in the central role, but you get no sense from him that he could be the same man who (we will find out late on in the film) was sent to Italy by his father because he almost killed a fellow student at Yale.

It is though, even without Philip Seymour Hoffman, a good film.  Matt Damon is superb as the initially naïve but before long manipulative Ripley, who as lie builds on lie, finds himself committing murder to prevent what, for him, would be an even worse outcome, a return to his earlier less than gilded life.  Both Gwyneth Platrow, as Greenleaf’s fiance Marge and Cate Blanchet, as textile heiress, Meredith Logue (a character not in the novel) are both excellent.

The film is, with this cast and based  on Highsmith’s classic thriller for the first 30 minutes or so, very watchable.  A well crafted Hollywood thriller. But then leaping out of his red sports car in Rome comes playboy, Freddie Miles.  From the moment he arrives, as Dickie Greenleaf’s attention shifts to him from Ripley, there is a sense of a cat playing with a mouse.   Dickie Greenleaf is egoistical (and perhaps stupid) enough not to notice that Ripley’s story doesn’t add up, that his gauche style of dressing and manners reveals him as being anything other than the Yale graduate he is pretending to be.   Freddie Miles on the other hand spots the fraud straight away, and thereafter cruelly taunts and toys with him.

So far I have only spoken about the character of Freddie Miles rather than Seymour Hoffman’s performance in the role.   Seymour Hoffman totally inhabits the role, which somewhat unusually for him is a man who is wholly comfortable in his own skin (even in his recent tour de force performance in The Master there is a sense of being something other than he is).     It is this effortless comfort in his own skin and his ability to spot, in class terms, someone who is not one of the club, that Hoffman portrays so wonderfully.

His condescending laugh as he repeats ‘Tommy Tommy’ as a result of Ripley making another minor social faux pas (Dickie is at dinner – but it is only 6pm, that corduroy jacket, the peeping at Dickie and Marge having sex on Greenleaf’s yacht)  shows a man enjoying playing with his prey.   The scene in the jazz record shop where Freddie and Dickie listen to jazz records in the booth, while Tom is left browsing the racks,   emphasising through looks and glances who it is who socially belongs and who is the outsider.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance makes the viewer (as well as Ripley) feel uncomfortable. Fixed under Freddie’s piercing skeptical gaze, as you fail to use the right piece of cutlery or wear last season’s jacket.   Miles is a man whose snobbishness is part of his identity.  Seymour Hoffman shows this through bearing and expression, as much as through words and accent.     It feels that not only has he seen through Tom Ripley but that he has seen through you watching the film.

It is no exaggeration to say that Seymour Hoffman’s contribution The Talented Mr Ripley turns it from being a good but throwaway Hollywood thriller to something worth rewatching again and again.  His five scenes – his arrival outside the café, the record shop, the breakfast scene, the scene on the boat and, following Greenleaf’s disappearance, the Rome apartment scene, are by a distance the five best scenes in the film.

It takes an exceptional actor to have so little screen time with such a big impact.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was such an actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014 RIP.


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