Pop Culture
May 29, 2024, 06:28AM

Netflix's Ripley Adds an Interesting Layer to a Well-Told Story

The story of Patricia Highsmith's charming sociopath, Tom Ripley, continues in eight episodes.

Mv5bmje1yzdhotktm2m5zi00mjy1ltgxzjutzja0odc5ndzmytm0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq  . v1 .jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The first thing a viewer notices about the eight-episode series on Netflix, Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is its stunning black-and-white photography. Cinematographer and frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, Robert Elswit, produces a visual feast with all the raw material Italy has to offer—ancient seaside villas, religious iconography, sidewalk cafes and Venetian canals.

Ripley director Steven Zallian uses his colorless palette to produce a high-contrast film-noir aesthetic with ample darkness and shadows. In contrast, Anthony Minghella, in his 1999 eponymously-titled version of the same novel, opted for a color-laden vibe, lighting nearly every scene naturally with sunny skies, with the deep blue of the sea as a common background. The result is a more sinister, gloomy feel for the series than the earlier film, which has its mood lifted by its Euro-travelog style cinematography.

The series, for which Zallian has 400 minutes to work with, adheres more accurately to Highsmith's 1955 psychological thriller than Minghella's film, which starred Matt Damon (in the title role), Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those are big names, while the only actor the casual viewer's likely to recognize in the Netflix version is Dakota Fanning.

In a nutshell, the plot revolves around a shipping magnate, Herbert Greenleaf, enlisting Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) in NYC to travel to Italy in order to bring home his slacker son, Dickie (Johnny Flynn), a dilettante painter living in full expat-trust fund style off his hefty, non-negotiable, allowance. Dickie enjoys sailing in his boat, martinis in the early-afternoon, and painting disposable art. It's a pleasant, undemanding life that the scion sees no reason to give up for the rigors and dull routines of corporate existence, especially since he's got his girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), with him, along with plenty of privileged friends who do things like arrange winter ski vacations in the Alps.

Ripley, as played by Irish actor Andrew Scott, is a dark, disturbed soul manifesting itself as an "aw shucks," agreeable fellow who comes off more Midwest than NYC. His talents include forging signatures, lying, and doing spot-on imitations of various people. A paid "vacation" to Europe's a dream gig for the small-time con artist, an avocation the elder Mr. Greenleaf has no knowledge of. Ripley abandons his original mission soon after arriving in Italy in order to focus on a grander task—assuming Dickie's identity.

Andrew Scott, in the lead role, shines as Ripley. One of Highsmith's great skills as a novelist was the ability to make her readers feel a sneaking sympathy towards her normal-looking protagonist, even though he's a sociopathic murderer. It also takes skill to pull this off onscreen, but Scott's up to the challenge, using subtle facial expressions to telegraph his character's conniving mind. His Ripley's closer to Highsmith's original character than Damon's Ripley in that he's much less obvious about his homosexuality and his longing for Dickie. While there’s homoerotic tension in Ripley, it's muted. Scott's character is more interested in stealing Dickie's identity than romance. Highsmith, a lesbian, wrote in a time when homosexuality was implied rather than overt.

Johnny Flynn's Dickie, in contrast with Jude Law's charismatic, flamboyant Dickie, is more subdued. While he holds the viewer's eye, his energy level is tamped down, presumably by Zallian, as Flynn's capable of greater electricity. All in all, both Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge (Fanning), are somewhat less interesting than the couple played by Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, which deflates the story to some extent. But there's one glaring, inexplicable casting faux pas in Ripley—probably the worst miscasting I've ever seen. Sting's "nonbinary," androgynous offspring, Eliot Sumner, plays Freddie Miles as what appears also to be a nonbinary person in a performance so limp and muted that it's practically non-existent.

Highsmith portrays Dickie and his friends as a bunch of high-spirited sybarites, but Sumner's screen personality is about as high-spirited as a dentist office waiting room, and about as much fun. Granted, Zallian's working of this story tends towards the gloomy, but it needs more life from the crowd that Ripley's bringing the gloom to in order to highlight what's going on. Freddie’s is a small, yet key role, as he was the guy who sussed out the fact that Tom Ripley stole his friend Dickie's identity way before the police and Marge did. The Minghella version spells out, in a number of scenes, just how a charismatic Freddie reached this conclusion, but Zallian doesn't bother. Sumner's inert performance deflates the story's dramatic arc and diminishes tension.

Various Italian statues, gargoyles, paintings, and animals that pop up throughout the series and provide a counter-narrative. As well as artfully anchoring the story's various locations, the director presents them to convey the message that somebody's watching Ripley when he thought he was alone while committing his crimes and cover-ups. Zallian employs this device to remarkable effect in his use of a cat belonging to the manager of the apartment building Ripley temporarily lived in. The feline's body language, in around a dozen shots, makes clear that it knew something highly suspicious was happening on the day that Ripley committed one of his murders, and then worked hard to hide the corpse.

Zallian has produced a Hitchcockian update (Hitchcock made a 1951 film version of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train) of a by now familiar story. Although the slow-burn, languid pacing will present a barrier to some viewers, the Netflix series pays off in the end. Adding complexity and historical context to the series are the recurring references to Italian painter Caravaggio, a troubled soul in Rome long before Ripley arrived there. The Renaissance artist's dark-themed paintings fit in with Elswit's moody camera work, and the fact that Caravaggio was convicted of murder in Rome 350 years before Ripley arrived delivers an obvious message about a connection to the past.


Register or Login to leave a comment