‘Ripley’ review: Netflix remake miscalculates on actors’ ages

Patricia Highsmith’s iconic 1955 psychological thriller “The Talented Mr. Ripley” has inspired a number of adaptations across various platforms, including two nearly perfect feature film versions: René Clément’s “Purple Noon” (1960), starring Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 masterpiece “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with that pitch-perfect casting of Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett and Jack Davenport contributing invaluable supporting work.

Of course, 1960 and even 1999 are ancient history in a 21st century film/streaming world in which hardly a week goes by without a reboot or remake, and so it goes with the eight-part Netflix limited series “Ripley.” With the acclaimed filmmaker Steven Zaillian (writer of “Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Irishman”) as writer, director and executive producer, the Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood”) delivering stunningly gorgeous, exclusively black-and-white visuals, and that brilliant source material, “Ripley” would seem to have all the makings of a high-end, audience-pleasing, awards-bait sensation.

Unfortunately, this version of the story is problematic from the outset, in large part because of some curious casting choices, as well as a tendency by the greatly talented Zaillian to indulge in a number of overlong sequences that are initially intriguing but eventually wear out one’s patience.

Let’s start with that casting, and I preface this by saying I have enormous respect for the main players in “Ripley.” I just felt they weren’t right for the characters they’re playing in this vehicle. The series starts off in New York City, where Andrew Scott plays Tom Ripley, a low-level grifter who barely scrapes by via a series of cheap cons. Tom is summoned to a meeting with the shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan), who has been led to believe Tom is acquainted with Herbert’s ne’er-do-well son Dickie, who has been living off trust money in Italy for years. Herbert makes Tom quite the offer: He’ll pay him a princely sum and send him off to Italy in first-class style so that Tom can persuade Dickie to come home.

From there the main story lands in Italy, with consistently beautiful location shots on the Amalfi coast, and in Naples and Venice and Rome. Clearly out of place and out of sync with the culture, speaking no Italian and bumbling his way about, Tom manages to “accidentally” run into Dickie (Johnny Flynn) and Dickie’s girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning), although he rather quickly reveals to Dickie that he’s been sent here by Dickie’s father. Thus begins a whirlwind period in which Dickie takes Tom under his wing and they become fast friends, much to the consternation of the rather dour Marge, who doesn’t trust this interloper.

Johnny Flynn plays Dickie, who's living off his trust fund in Italy.

Johnny Flynn plays Dickie, who’s living off his trust fund in Italy.

In the 1999 film, Dickie was just two years out of college, and the actors playing Tom, Dickie and Marge were all in their 20s. They were peers. They were young and, in some cases, hopelessly naïve. Here, with the 47-year-old Scott playing Tom and the 41-year-old Johnny Flynn as Dickie, are we to believe Tom has been a grifter for at least two decades, while Dickie has been squandering his potential for nearly that long?

Also problematic: The Tom we see in New York City isn’t a particularly skilled con artist. But once he arrives in Italy, he turns into a savant who becomes fluent in Italian and masterminds an elaborate scheme in which he impersonates Dickie, commits heinous crimes and makes a fool out of the inspector (Maurizio Lombardi) in charge of investigating those crimes. It’s a whiplash of a transformation.

Even though “Ripley” stretches across eight episodes, with running times ranging from 47 minutes to the 74-minute finale, it actually has a LESS complicated plot than the 1999 film. The Cate Blanchett character of Meredith Logue, from whose interactions with Tom (whom she believed to be Dickie) made for some of the most intricate and exquisitely choreographed scenes in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” is nowhere to be seen. (We do have the pleasure of seeing John Malkovich, who played Tom Ripley in 2002’s “Ripley’s Game,” in an entirely different role here, and we’ll say no more about that.)

One might question why I’m making so many comparisons to previous iterations, and commenting on the ages of the actors, which I would never do unless it’s germane to the casting, e.g., when someone is obviously too old to be playing a high schooler. Shouldn’t the present-day work be judged on its own merits? In this case, when the novel and in particular the 1999 adaptation are so well known, I believe it’s impossible to ignore that history. “Ripley” is a great-looking series with some occasionally effective moments, but it stumbles out of the starting gate and never fully regains its footing.

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