It’s Impossible to Overstate Just How Good Netflix’s ‘Ripley’ Is

Philippe Antonello/Netflix
Philippe Antonello/Netflix

There’s no shortage of glowing things to say about Ripley, Netflix’s masterful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is proof that hiring great artists is the surest means of producing great art. Written and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Irishman, The Night Of), shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), and starring acclaimed actor Andrew Scott (All of Us Strangers, Fleabag), this is a sumptuous, suspenseful, and altogether stellar black-and-white series. It not only avoids making a misstep along its cunningly winding journey, but it also manages to exceed expectations at every turn, such that there isn’t a gesture or suggestion in its eight episodes that doesn’t enhance its overpowering overall effect. Premiering April 4 on Netflix (after having originally been produced for, and by, Showtime), Ripley is the platonic ideal of television.

To find a series as perfectly realized as this is a shock unto itself, and the fact that Ripley is a retelling of an oft-told tale that’s already received two superb big-screen adaptations (1960’s Purple Noon and 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley) simply makes its triumph that much more astonishing. Hewing closely to its source material even as it expands on it in canny ways that would make its subject proud, Zaillian’s saga begins in New York City with Tom Ripley (Scott), who gets by via low-level scams; he convinces doctors’ patients that they owe overdue payments, which he then has sent to his (fake) collection agency. Tom is a snake who hides in plain sight and knows how to play the angles. He’s also someone who has a particular knack—due to smarts and sociopathic self-interest—for slipping out of trouble, as he does when this ruse suddenly falls apart.

Andrew Scott stands in a still from 'Ripley'

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in 'Ripley'

Lorenzo Sisti/Netflix

Unsure of what next move to make, he’s smiled upon by fortune when he's contacted by a private investigator (Bokeem Woodbine) who’s working for shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan). Greenleaf has mistakenly heard that Tom knows his son, Dickie (Johnny Flynn); he wants him to track Dickie down in Italy, where the scion has lived for some time in the lap of layabout luxury as an aspiring painter.

Tom is a peerless chameleon precisely because all that lurks beneath his charming surface is a void of greed, cruelty, and ambition, and Scott evokes his deceptive ruthlessness through his eyes—which slyly convey the machinations developing and spinning in his head—and his thin, unwelcoming smiles. Charismatic and scary in equal measure, Scott has never been better, and he’s aided in his exceptional cause by Zaillian, whose writing is razor-sharp and his direction just as assured. Collaborating with Elswit, the filmmaker’s monochromatic imagery is at once classically beautiful and coolly menacing as—it reflects the inherently bifurcated nature of his protagonist, who’s defined by the interplay between his light (exterior) and dark (interior) sides.

Together, the writer and cinematographer (along with production designer David Gropman and composer Jeff Russo) provide a bounty of aesthetic delights: deft framing in which Tom is constantly spied at alienated distances in narrow passageways and doorways; recurring, heavily symbolic sights of mirrors, water, Roman statues, and the paintings of Caravaggio, whom Dickie loves and Tom comes to adore; and numerous, precisely playful sequences that crosscut between written and spoken words, reality and imagination.

Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and Andrew Scott sit at a table in a still from 'Ripley'

Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in 'Ripley'

Courtesy of Netflix

Ripley follows Tom to the rapturous coastal Italian town of Atrani, where he slides into the life of Dickie, whose careless arrogance facilitates Tom’s subterfuge, and Dickie’s girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning), who’s penning a self-indulgent travel book about the area. Marge is wary of Tom, especially because she suspects that there’s a financial as well as homoerotic strain to his friendship with Dickie. Zaillian’s scripts shrewdly imply those undercurrents—as does Tom, deliberately—while simultaneously making clear that the character truly feels nothing but a burning, unquenchable hunger for that which he does not have: wealth, status, and the satisfaction of besting those who think themselves his superior. To satiate that craving requires an endless procession of logistical, emotional, and psychological cons. Luckily for him, Tom is the master of his trade, and part of the series’ thrill is Zaillian’s depiction of his subject’s ploys as both adeptly premeditated and—as in amazingly lengthy, methodical scenes of murder and the ensuing cover-ups—concocted on the fly, one cautious and clever detail at a time.

Why ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Still Sizzles 20 Years Later

Tom longs not to be with Dickie but to literally be him, and once that fantasy comes true during a harrowing third episode, Ripley picks up steam as it watches Scott’s phony strive to transform himself by juggling innumerable lies and complications, many of them brought about by a subsequent homicide and, with it, the pesky involvement of Rome’s Inspector Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi). From Scott to Fanning to Lombardi, Ripley’s every participant is phenomenal, imparting that which isn’t uttered aloud through pointed looks and crafty insinuations. Formally speaking, Zaillian does likewise: periodic panoramas of crashing waves and water relate to Tom’s fear of getting in over his head; close-ups of Caravaggio works (and, ultimately, flashbacks to the painter’s own murderous past) cast Tom as his kindred artist; and shots of ticking clocks, reflections, ashtrays, suitcases, wine glasses, rings, and romantic Italian getaways amplify a sense of Tom’s materialism, vanity, and covetous deviousness.

The story of a man who’s potentially doomed by his inherent self, Ripley has a noir heart and a striking style to match, and like its protagonist—who’s nothing if not an actor and a director—it performs a skillful tightrope act. Be it Dickie pal Freddie Miles’ (Eliot Sumner) gender-neutral identity, religious iconography, or repeated scenarios (e.g., Tom walking past cops as he disembarks from trains and ferries), every specific element contributes seamlessly to the whole, and Zaillian orchestrates it all with electric confidence and flair. Miring Tom in a duality-drenched mess of his own making, the series only grows more edge-of-your-seat exciting as the walls begin to close in on the fraudster, and he’s compelled to carry out a succession of gambits that hinge on a confluence of table-setting manipulations, in-the-moment maneuvers, and unlikely twists of fate. That Ripley pulls off its conclusion with aplomb while additionally laying the groundwork for a possible follow-up (with the participation of John Malkovich, who starred as Ripley in 2002’s Ripley’s Game!) is, in the end, almost too good to be true. Fortunately for viewers, it’s par for the course of this tour-de-force—the finest thing TV has offered in many years.

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