Monday, March 24, 2008

Anthony Minghella 1954 - 2008

I was shocked to hear of director Anthony Minghella's death. While I haven't enjoyed all of his films, I will always appreciate his adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the only movie I have had an honest to God crush on.

I had read the Patricia Highsmith novel a year before the movie came out, and was instantly enamored by the sociopath Tom Ripley and his calculating ways; the desire for a cultured life and the willingness to do anything for it. The novel is particularly insightful by recounting Ripley's attempts at acceptance; at parties he trots out stories about a fictional psychiatrist he's visiting and as a regular punchline, uses "I can't make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I'm thinking of giving them both up," until one day, some oaf, sick of hearing the line, tells him to shut up.

What I admire about Minghella's Ripley, is while he retains the novel Tom's less than admirable qualities, he humanizes him by making him a broken soul who has never known love. By emphasizing the homoeroticism that was only hinted at in the novel, Minghella fleshes out the simple want of happiness as a plausible reason for Tom's crimes.

Further sympathy for Tom is grown in the first act by showing him in his miserable basement apartment with paper thin walls that don't block out the screaming of fighting neighbours. The music lover, who can only afford a paper keyboard to practise on, has a job as a lowly bathroom attendant in a concert hall, that in the after hours, affords him a rare chance to play on a real piano. Subbing for a friend at a small recital, Tom meets a rich shipping magnate, Herbert Greenleaf. Donning a borrowed Princeton jacket, Tom pretends to have known Greenleaf's son, Dickie, in school, and accepts a mission to bring the wayward heir back to New York from Italy.

Minghella uses music as the ultimate narrative device. Ripley is a staid classical lover, who upon learning of Dickie's preference for jazz, dives head first into Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to use as "in" if needed. Jazz, is in fact, the reason why Dickie accepts him as a friend, and the pair bond over a late night concert that ends up with the two Americans singing on stage. What seems like a promising friendship soon turns sour as Dickie grows tired of Tom like an old toy, and treats him as such. There's an argument, and Tom ends up killing Dickie more or less by accident. To help cover up the crime, Tom pretends to be Dickie, but ends up using the identity theft permanently. He's finally accepted into the privileged life, even if it as Dickie Greenleaf. Tom buys himself a piano, attends operas as a patron, and has the life he's always wanted. Everything is perfect until another American expatriate Freddie Miles, clues onto his deception and must be murdered. The police find his body and finger Dickie as the prime suspect, but also tack the murder of Tom Ripley onto the charges. To avoid jail, Tom has no choice but to return to being himself. He writes a note that implies Dickie committed suicide and escapes to Venice.

Here, Minghella adds a love interest for Ripley; Peter Smith-Kingsley, a fleeting character in the book, to help Tom defend himself from police questioning after Freddie's death. Peter is an opera impresario who sets Tom up in Venice, and also shares his love for classical music. So this pair too, bond over music, but this time Tom doesn't have to pretend. He genuinely loves Bach and cries over Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Peter (as openly gay as you could be in the 1950s) appreciates this. So it becomes a doomed love story now, because Tom is ultimately broken over the murders and lies he's committed. This is where Highsmith's sensibility would suit me nicely - her Tom is at complete ease with his crimes, and this duo could live happily ever after if given the chance. Alas, this is Hollywood, and Tom is eaten up by guilt, and a chance encounter with someone who knows him only as Dickie ends the charade. In the most devastating murder scene of the film, Tom kills Peter, which in turn ends any trace of Ripley, as he is now committed to the deception of being Dickie Greenleaf.

Highsmith wrote four sequels to her novel, but Minghella leaves no room for this, because his Ripley no longer has a soul. Highsmith's Ripley ends up with Dickie's inheritance and sets up a home in Europe - he becomes an art forger, hit man of sorts, and marries for even more money. He enjoys Lou Reed's Transformer album and plays the harpsichord in his spare time. They're both great characters, but Minghella's version is the one that breaks your heart.

There are no deleted scenes on the DVD of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but shots cut from the film appear in the music video 'My Funny Valentine'. I can only imagine what the rough cut of the movie was like, and sadly, will now never know. Minghella also wrote a book on the making of the movie called Getting Away With Murder that I have yet to read, but judging from the man's talent, must be fascinating to read.

Image of the week

I hope this comic is as awesome as it looks.