Life & Culture

Ripley review: Dark designs with a monochrome finish


Casting issues: Margherita Buy and Andrew Scott in Ripley

Netflix | ★★✩✩✩

On its publication in 1955, Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was an instant hit, whose popularity has endured ever since. There have been two major film adaptations: Plein Soleil (1960), directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version, with Matt Damon and Jude Law. Now, Netflix has joined the party, with its eight-part series Ripley, featuring Andrew Scott in the lead role. What could go wrong?

Highsmith’s story, which Ripley follows closely, lifts and shifts the premise of Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors to Italy in the 1950s. Tom Ripley, a small-time grifter based in New York, is commissioned by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to travel to Italy to persuade his son Dickie to relinquish his self-indulgent lifestyle and take up his responsibilities in the family business (Herbert mistakenly believes that Tom is a friend of Dickie’s). Tom uses the scheme to insinuate himself into Dickie’s privileged lifestyle; a complex relationship develops between the two men, leading to violent consequences and dangerous predicaments.

Director Steven Zaillian sets out to put his own visual stamp on the proceedings. Where Clément and Minghella used palettes of bright colours, emphasising the glamour of Greenleaf’s world, Ripley is shot in spectacular monochrome. It’s a technical feat, a series of call-backs to Forties noir cinema, with occasional nods at Fellini’s depiction of Rome in La Dolce Vita. It’s also an extended metaphor for the profound darkness of Tom’s soul.

That darkness emanates from Highsmith’s own situation (not for nothing did she refer to Tom as an autobiographical creation). While writing the novel, she was involved with Ellen Blumenthal Hill, a sophisticated academic of Jewish extraction, in what acquaintances described as a love-hate relationship. Hill, the dominant partner, was condescending and controlling; Highsmith resented her lover’s assurance, especially about lesbianism. There was also a deep contradiction in the fact that Highsmith, a more-than-casual antisemite, even developed an attraction to a Jewish woman.

Many of this is paralleled in the relationship between Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. In Ripley, Andrew Scott excels in the portrayal of resentment and envy towards the wealthy playboy – his eyes exude a toxic combination of covetousness and contempt. Unfortunately, Johnny Flynn as Dickie doesn’t convey a corresponding attitude of superiority – he appears diffident, not domineering.

It’s a shame. Flynn is a fine actor, but here, he seems drained of his charisma. Partly, the problem lies in the casting of Scott, who makes Ripley seem far too experienced and commanding. Frankly, he is too old to seem believably intimidated by Dickie, as Tom should be. As a result, there is virtually no sexual tension between the two men. Tom wants Dickie’s stuff, wants his life, but does not want him.

The central relationship’s weakness is not the only factor that diminishes the impact of Ripley. Dickie’s chum Freddie Miles is played by the non-binary actor Eliot Sumner as an intelligent character of even greater social assurance than Greenleaf. But Freddie’s astute suspicions about Tom raise a distinct meh – there is no question of who is toying with whom.

Without characters who present a serious challenge to Tom, the series starts to feel very long indeed. A whole episode is devoted to disposing of a body. The police investigation in the series’ second half feels interminable. Maurizio Lombardi is hilarious as the dapper Inspector Ravini, but in the end the detective is shown to be as vain and dull-witted as anyone else.

At some points Dakota Fanning, as Dickie’s girlfriend Marge Sherwood, seems to get the opportunity to provide a counterweight to Tom, displaying uncommon empathy and emotional intelligence. Yet in the last episodes, she morphs uncomfortably into a silly young woman on the make. That awkward transformation may be a result of the show cleaving closely to Highsmith, a lesbian who affected to like women only as sexual partners. Another contradiction.

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