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At One With the Stranger

The theme of the outsider weaves through Anthony Minghella's films. Case in point: 'Mr. Ripley.'

December 19, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

BERKELEY — Was that a slip of the tongue? If so, it's a tiny thing, certainly understandable. Sitting on a rooftop terrace overlooking the verdant hills in Berkeley where he currently, temporarily, resides, Anthony Minghella is discussing anomie.

It's not your typical Hollywood celebrity chitchat, but then Minghella isn't typical. He used to be an academic; references to Bach, Valery, existentialism--and, yes, anomie--come naturally to him.

And so, just now, while speaking of his new movie, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Minghella mentioned a novel by Albert Camus. The book is about an alienated character who commits a murder. Minghella said the title was "The Outsider."

"The Outsider." The mind races. Did Camus write such a book? Could he mean Richard Wright's "The Outsider"? Expatriate American author. Lived in France. Existential sensibility. It's unlikely. But, no. He said Camus.

And then he said the title again: "The character in 'The Outsider,' Mersault, seems to have an enormous amount in common with Ripley."

Frantic mental note: Find nearest bookstore. Track down this lost Camus novel. Today.

But there is no need: It turns out that in England, where Minghella is from, "The Outsider" is the title of the 1946 classic of alienation that in the U.S. we know as "The Stranger." But how perfect is that for the purpose of this conversation? The affable Minghella, in these last tense days of polishing his movie, seems never to have met a stranger. The theme of the outsider, though, is much on his mind.

With "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which will be released Christmas Day, the director has made four films, including the lavishly praised and multiple-Oscar-winning "The English Patient" in 1996. And each of his movies, in one way or another, has dealt with outsiders. All of them, as well as the plays he has written, have characters who are immigrants or expatriates.

"I'm very fascinated with that, as somebody who grew up with a kind of immigrant's perspective, with an outsider perspective," Minghella says in his cultured British accent.

His father, a Sicilian ice cream maker, immigrated to Britain from Italy. They lived on the Isle of Wight. "I could stand on the shore of that island and look over at the place that they called the mainland and feel a membrane between me and that place," he says. He feels it even today. In England, he's always felt Italian, he says; in Italy he feels like a Brit.

And in America? In America he feels comfortable, he says, because "everybody's an immigrant in America, so there's much more of a sense of people celebrating both their origins and their current nationality. It's something to be proud of in this country. It's something to be anxious about in England, traditionally."

That sense of alienation, of dying to belong to a club that doesn't want you as a member, is very much at the heart of "Ripley."

The film, which stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is based on a 1955 novel by the late expatriate American author Patricia Highsmith. (It was made into a film once before, in 1960 in France, with the title "Purple Noon" starring Alain Delon.) Highsmith wrote five Ripley books but is perhaps best known to movie fans as the author of "Strangers on a Train," which Alfred Hitchcock adapted.

Because she wrote in the mystery genre, her admirers say the quality of her writing and the philosophical implications of her work have been underestimated. Graham Greene was a fan. And Minghella is among those who see her work in the same existential vein of Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. To him, Ripley, who changes identities with the ease of a chameleon, is an alienated figure out of touch even with himself.

"One of the things that I have Ripley talk about [in the movie] is his confining of his true self to a place that he can't visit and doesn't want anybody else to visit," Minghella says. "He's got an essential shame about who he is."

In the book and in the movie, this leads him to obsessively attach himself to a rich, handsome American living in Italy--with fatal results. The $40-million movie (which is being distributed by Paramount Pictures and Miramax) is riding on Minghella's faith that audiences will be able to relate to such a twisted character.

*

The typical Hollywood way of adapting a story like this might be to cast John Travolta as the dogged Italian policeman on Ripley's tail and turn it into a role equal to, if not bigger than, Ripley's. But aside from identifying and expanding upon the thematic threads that interest him, Minghella remained fairly faithful to the book.

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