Ripley strikes quite exquisitely, again
text size

Ripley strikes quite exquisitely, again

Netflix's latest take on the eponymous conman is a slow-burning psychodrama with stylistic nods to Italian masters

Ripley strikes quite exquisitely, again
Andrew Scott in Ripley.

Just when you thought the original book was bled dry, its last drop of smouldering homoerotic blood squeezed and sucked by multilple movie adaptations, from Rene Clement (French) and Anthony Minghella (American) to Liliana Cavani (Italian), here comes Steven Zaillian's seven-episode Netflix series bluntly titled Ripley. Dusky and exquisitely coldblooded, the latest reworking proves that the Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley is a living gift that continues giving after 69 years.

At seven episodes, one feared this to be another Netflix exercise in narrative elasticity -- how to stretch 120 minutes of material to seven watery hours. Zaillian, however, arrives with a scrupulous strategy. Ripley comes in luminous black and white, gorgeously shot by Robert Elswit, and is written as a chilly, slow-burning, atmospheric psychodrama with clear, proud nods to Hitchcock, Visconti and Antonioni. It's also a tourism promo-reel for neo-classical Italy, sweeping us from Atrani to Palermo, Naples to Rome and Venice, with a detour to San Remo. Never mind the grisly head bashing, the clunky murder and the lonely corpse on Via Appia, this is a very beautiful thing to look at for seven hours on a television screen.

Flourished with new details, the arc of the story remains the same as in the book. It's early 1960s, Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) is a petty conman in Manhattan hired by a shipbuilding tycoon to travel to Italy and persuade his spoiled son to come back to the US. The son is Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), now living in a grand villa atop the hill of Atrani, a town south of Naples. His girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), lives a few doors down. Dickie fancies himself a painter; Marge thinks she's a writer. Neither of them needs to be anything because real work is superfluous for people like them. Both of them just need to find something to occupy themselves, to fill the void as immense as the Mediterranean outside their windows.

So Ripley arrives, a poor, clueless American in culture-rich Europe. He climbs the interminable stone steps to reach Dickie's hilltop villa -- a scheming social climber like him surely has many more steps to ascend before he reaches the peak. And instead of convincing Dickie to leave, Ripley ends up staying with Dickie, living off him, loving him, and wanting to become like him.

Most viewers still retain the images of the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Matt Damon as Ripley, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge and Jude Law as Dickie. Drenched in Campanian sunshine, that version is a heated, sexy thriller in which the three leads drip with sex and jealousy. Damon makes Ripley a shifty little weasel who can't get over the fact that a useless, untalented trust fund baby is living a much easier life than he is, while Law's contemptuous, Hellenic-god aura easily makes him an object of deadly obsession. In this new Ripley, the story takes place mostly in autumn and winter, the black-and-white photography casting a funereal pall over everything. Italy looks a few thousand years old -- as it is. It's not the heat that drives these young people nervous but the frigidity, the bleak, refrigerated emptiness of life.

Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and Andrew Scott in Ripley. (Photos:

The genius of Highsmith's novel is in the psychological creation of Ripley, a secretly queer drifter with a chip on his shoulder, an antihero who deserves pity before revulsion. Here, the Irish actor Andrew Scott makes him cold, inscrutable, pathetic, self-deluded, and with a hint of vulnerability. Scott, fresh from the acclaimed gay drama All Of Us Strangers, doesn't strike out for the boyish charm of Damon in the 1999 film, nor for the reptilian eeriness of John Malkovich in Cavani's Ripley's Game (a solid adaptation, too). And he is certainly not as sensually devastating as Alain Delon in Clement's Purple Noon, the first adaptation of the novel in 1960.

Scott's Ripley is a cadaver with slick-back hair, a pale, awkward ghost from the bottom of the stairwell with a capacity to expertly delude himself into believing he actually belongs with the crowd on the upper floor. The way Ripley is designed means the series hums with constant mystery, plenty of it, but it also comes with minimum erotic friction within the triangle -- Johnny Flynn as Dickie is a naïve dillentante, handsome but strangely not desirable, Dakota Fanning as Marge is too stiff and too sober, while Ripley keeps hiding his dark motives beneath the icy, asexual surface. Even in an Antonioni's bleakest film, the mystery can still seem carnal.

Shots of architectural frescoes, Renaissance statues, enormous hallways, traffic roundabouts, Roman aqueducts, cobblestone staircases -- the ancient, La Dolce Vita beauty is a display of European allure that traps these young Americans, heady, greedy, foolish. Is the seven-part structure too liberal? The series surely takes its time -- but I'd never ask it to become less so. What Zaillian does so well with his script is to externalise Ripley's obsessions (and clumsiness) through his actions. There are a couple of masterly staged "action scenes" in which every slight shift in Ripley's reactions to an escalating calamity is tracked -- the boating trip in San Remo, the body-ridding sequence in Rome, plus the scenes where Ripley faces Detective Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi).

In contemporary reading, Ripley could be interpreted as proto-Parasite. As in the usurping worm as well as the Oscar-winning movie. The audacious schemes of Tom Ripley, in the age of neoliberal arrogance, could be read as a revenge on the rich and the privileged, the idle upper-class in their yachts and beachside villas pretending to be useful in their total uselessness. That's why as much as we loathe the scheming Ripley and his psychopathic ruthlessness, we see a glimpse of our own reality in him.

Do you like the content of this article?