Categories: TV Reviews

‘Ripley’ Review: Andrew Scott is Perfection in Steven Zaillian’s Exquisite Adaptation of Literature’s Most Cunning Con Artist

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Over five novels, multiple feature films plus radio, television and theatre, Tom Ripley has embedded himself, rather insidiously, into our cultural fabric for almost 70 years. Matt Damon, Dennis Hopper, Barry Pepper, Alain Delon and John Malkovich (who has a delicious cameo in this new series) have all played the role, and now Andrew Scott, fresh off a stellar performance in last year’s All of Us Strangers on the big screen and his one-man Vanya on the stage, takes on the titular psychopathic con artist with an icy freshness.

What’s our fascination with Tom Ripley? Is it the Italian locale? The fashion and lifestyle? Or is it the dark, vicarious idea of what it might be like to commit the crime of crimes and escape prosecution? In varying degrees all are a little bit true, some parts more than others, and novelist Patricia Highsmith knew this – that our envy can take on so many forms, some innocent but some very bad. In his review of 1960’s Purple Noon, the French adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley that starred Delon, film critic Roger Ebert leaned heavily into that, saying, “It’s insidious, the way Highsmith seduces us into identifying with him and sharing his selfishness; Ripley believes that getting his own way is worth whatever price anyone else might have to pay. We all have a little of that in us.”

If Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley is your touchstone to the world of Tom Ripley, and for most people it probably is, prepare yourself for something very different. But it also is worth mentioning that in this new Ripley, although attributed as ‘based on the novels by Patricia Highsmith,’ the actions and timeline take place in and only within the first novel, which the Minghella’s Oscar-nominated film was also adapted from, and actually hues closer to the source material, stopping just short of its final sequences, swapping painting for jazz (a crucial plot point here) and no Meredith Logue, a creation for the 1999 film. 

In Ripley, brilliantly adapted and directed by Academy Award-winning writer Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) our preview into his life is that of merely a forger, a scammer of simpletons out of cash to keep himself afloat. But what this iteration does is quite clever; it takes Scott’s age (47, closer to Ripley’s age in Highsmith’s final novel) and creates a seasoned Ripley and in the greater context of the volume and audacity of his crimes makes more sense. In the book, Tom Ripley is all of 18 years old and seems a bit too well-versed in his deceptions, forgeries and ability to escape at just the right time. The setup is the same; wealthy layabout Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), son of ship-building magnate Herbert Greenleaf (dryly performed by Manchester by the Sea writer and director Kenneth Lonergan), is living a meandering life in Atrani, Italy with girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning). His father sends Tom, thinking the two are good friends, after him to get him back to the U.S. to settle down and work in the family business. Offering him cash, travel and accommodations, Tom swiftly accepts, the scam opportunities not only endless but financed. We even get the calculated meet up on the beach, Tom in a speedo and loafers.

Fanning’s Marge is styled somewhere between 1930’s Katharine Hepburn and a 1960s beatnik, all pants and flats and almost instantly dubious of Tom’s intentions. It’s a swiftly cold performance from Fanning, in the best way possible, and one of her best in years. She’s focused on writing a book about her and Dickie’s time in Atrani and every day Tom is there is not only a distraction but seeping Dickie’s time, attention and affections. “Just tell him to leave,” she commands Dickie, who’s initially sympathetic to Tom. Flynn, a dead ringer for a baby-faced Christopher Nolan, imbues his Dickie with considerably less lust for life than Jude Law’s version, a man that’s almost tired of his unearned wealth, almost ready to give it away, making him an easy mark for Tom. In the most inspired bit of casting, Eliot Sumner – offspring of Sting and Trudie Styler – takes the role of Freddie Miles, a real friend of Dickie and Tom’s greatest foe. Sumner’s Freddie, who looks not unlike Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry here, delivers devastating daggers into Tom’s plans with precision, forcing him into a corner it doesn’t seem he can escape from. But oh does he, for this is also a cat-and-mouse game as Inspector Pietro Ravini (a wonderfully droll Maurizio Lombardi) is but mere steps behind Ripley’s crimes all the way. But it’s Scott who remains the coup de grace casting choice here that exists somewhere between his Moriarty and Hot Priest. The Irish actor fashions a rigid American accent that feels a carefully curated creation by Tom, steely and emotionless when he needs to be and charming and bright when he thinks his act is in jeopardy. It feels like a true culmination of the breadth of Scott’s work and a pinnacle career moment.

This is a starker, darker Ripley, shot in the most gorgeous monochromatic black and white by Academy Award winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). It’s steeped in film noir of the 1940s and 50s like The Third Man, Strangers on a Train and Touch of Evil. Every corner, every stairwell holds a shadowy, byzantine mystery. “Always the light,” a priest mutters to Tom as he gazes upon a Caravaggio triptych. Indeed, and Elswit takes it to heart. There’s a shot of a car on road near the aqueduct outside of Rome in the middle of the night, the moonlight bursting through the trees, that is so stunning it’s among the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen. Lucio, cat guest star extraordinaire so important he has an entire episode named after him, knows and sees all and factors into the series’ second best shot (and don’t worry, he stays safe the whole season). Working in concert with an exquisite score from Jeff Russo (FX’s Fargo) and gorgeous period detail from production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi, The Cider House Rules) make for the best looking show of the year.

Multiple works of Caravaggio feature prominently in Ripley, with his 1610 painting David with the Head of Goliath having the most impact. In one interpretation it’s that of the painter himself depicted as both the killer and the victim, presenting Tom with his own created duality and fortifies the genius of the casting of Scott as an older Ripley forced to look at his own chiaroscuro life through the lens of one of history’s most notorious artists, a sexually ambiguous murderer who spend his life gallivanting around Italy, bouncing from Rome to Naples to Sicily. 

The queer elements of Tom Ripley have always been subtextual and Highsmith herself repeatedly said that he wasn’t gay and while the ‘99 film pushed that envelope more overtly (that bathtub scene) there’s even less to be had here, which might prove a controversial choice to some, given the freedom that television streamers provide. As Tom and Dickie sit on the beach they see a group barely clothed men forming a pyramid on the sand. Tom marvels at their feat, applauding while Dickie calls them “dandelions, fairies.” “So what if they are?” asks Tom after a pause. Later Dickie tells Marge he thinks Tom might be queer to which Marge quips, “I don’t think he’s sexual at all.” And that’s closer to the truth; Tom’s obsessions aren’t for sexual conquest, it’s a submersion of self.

Steven Zaillian has crafted the year’s most luxurious slow burn and Andrew Scott is spectacular in one of the best performances of his career.

Grade: A

Netflix will release the entire 8-episode limited series Ripley on April 4, 2024.

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is the founder/owner and Editor-in-Chief of AwardsWatch and has always loved all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards since he was in single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself in film school and the film forums of GoldDerby, and then migrated over to the former Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), before breaking off to create AwardsWatch in 2013. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, accredited by the Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and more, is a member of the International Cinephile Society (ICS), The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (GALECA), Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) and the International Press Academy. Among his many achieved goals with AwardsWatch, he has given a platform to underrepresented writers and critics and supplied them with access to film festivals and the industry and calls the Bay Area his home where he lives with his husband and son.

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