The Talented Mr. Andrew Scott Leads a Hell of a Remake

“I’m not someone who takes advantage of people,” Tom Ripley tells his new friend Dickie Greenleaf in the second episode of the new Netflix thriller Ripley. By this point, viewers have ample evidence that Tom is, in fact, exactly the kind of someone who takes advantage of people, even if Dickie and his girlfriend Marge are charmed by his company and oblivious to the threat he poses to them.

Many viewers will go into Ripley already understanding that Tom is, as one character will put it later in the show, a man whose profession is lying. He is the title character in a series of beloved novels by Patricia Highsmith. This Netflix version is adapting the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was already made into a fantastic 1999 film, written and directed by Anthony Mighella, and starring Matt Damon as Tom, Jude Law as Dickie, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge.

The movie is a masterpiece of Hitchcock-style suspense. It’s beautifully shot, and full of indelible performances by the cast: Damon, Law, and Paltrow may have never been better, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett both jump off the screen in smaller roles. Even 25 years later, it casts such a shadow that it would seem folly for anyone to attempt to retell this particular story, as opposed to adapting one of the other Ripley books(*), or inventing a new adventure for the character. There is no upside to remaking a historically great film unless you have a new take on it, and even then, you have to execute that idea at such a high level that it’s rarely worth trying.

(*) Ripley has been played in other films by John Malkovich (2002’s Ripley’s Game), Barry Pepper (2005’s Ripley Under Ground), Dennis Hopper (1977’s The American Friend), and Alain Delon (1960’s Purple Noon, also a Talented Mr. Ripley adaptation). The books have also been adapted for the radio on several occasions, including Ian Hart playing Ripley in BBC Radio productions of all five novels.   

Fortunately, Steven Zaillian — writer of Schindler’s List and Moneyball, among many other triumphs, and an interesting director in films like Searching For Bobby Fischer and shows like The Night Of — has a different approach to this material than Minghella did, as well as the chops to pull it off. If it’s not an instant classic like the Damon version, it’s much closer to one than it has any business being, and it’s among the most exciting shows of the year so far. 

Ripley here is played by Andrew Scott, coming off of All of Us Strangers, and best known to TV viewers as the Hot Priest from Fleabag. Scott’s nearly 20 years older than Damon was when he played the role, and this Ripley is no kid, either, in temperament or ability. When we meet him, in the fall of 1961, he is a veteran con man, currently running a scam where he pretends to represent a medical debt collection agency. It’s an efficient, if not hugely lucrative, hustle — enough to keep a roof over his head, but in a building where he has to use a communal bathroom whose shower occasionally spits up water that’s as black as his heart is.  But then an unexpected opportunity falls into his lap: shipbuilding magnate Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan, an impressive writer/director in his own right) needs help bringing his wayward son Dickie back from an indefinite stay in Italy, and his private investigator (Bokeem Woodbine) thinks that Tom is an old friend of Dickie’s who can make that happen. Tom barely remembers having met Dickie, but it’s a trip to Italy with paid expenses and a salary, at a moment when he could use a break. And he quickly realizes it’s an opportunity to dramatically level up in terms of both crimes and wealth.

Jude Law’s Dickie was impossibly beautiful, the life of every party, and a man with whom the younger Tom Ripley of the movie understandably fell in love with at first sight. Johnny Flynn‘s version of the character is more human-scaled: reasonably handsome, reasonably charming, but mostly just an idle rich boy who can float through life because his parents set up a trust fund they can’t revoke. Though this Ripley is attracted to Dickie, he’s attracted much more to Dickie’s easy lifestyle, including a beautiful villa overlooking the Amalfi Coast and a Picasso casually hanging on the living room wall. “Is he queer?” wonders Marge (played here by Dakota Fanning), before deciding, “I don’t know. I don’t think he’s normal enough to have any kind of sex life.”

Dakota Fanning in ‘Ripley.’

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Fortunately, Zaillian doesn’t need a golden god for the story he’s telling. If the movie is about how its Ripley gradually comes to understand that he’s a sociopath, this one is about a man who has known and accepted this for a long time. Scott’s version can fake human emotions — sometimes convincingly, sometimes less so, like his difficulty concealing his dislike of both Marge and of Dickie’s friend Freddie (Eliot Sumner, stepping into big shoes left by Hoffman) — and nurses private resentments. Mostly, though, he is a goal-oriented criminal, and Ripley is much less interested in why he does so many terrible things, or in what it costs his soul along the way, than it is in how he does it. And as a process-oriented crime drama — How To Get Away With Murder, But Also With Identity Theft, Check Forgery, Real Estate Swindles, and Other Forms of Fraud While Enjoying Lush European Scenery — it’s riveting. 

Throughout, Zaillian demonstrates a level of patience and interest in professional minutiae rarely seen on television outside of The Wire, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. He doesn’t devote eight hours to a story that Minghella told in a little over two as a self-indulgence, in the way so many “We like to think of this season as a very, very long movie” streaming series feel. Instead, he takes his sweet time showing the tiny details of each phase of Ripley’s plan because it helps us to better understand how Tom accomplishes all these tasks, and because Tom’s willingness to go to all this trouble tells us way more about Tom than he would ever say aloud to another person. And also, even though he’s the bad guy in every sense, watching him sweat through it all makes it feel awfully satisfying whenever he’s able to get past his latest seemingly exhausting obstacle.

The first episode, for instance, devotes a lot of time to Tom getting winded as he climbs up and down the many steps of Dickie and Marge’s adopted coastal town of Atrani. This never grows boring, not only because it becomes amusing after a while, but because it feels like he’s really accomplished something by the time he’s able to arrange a seemingly impromptu first meeting with his target. Later episodes dwell on how Tom learns to fake other people’s signatures and forge documents, or even on something relatively small like the manipulations required to get ice cubes out of trays with early Sixties refrigerator/freezer technology. When a cop accepts one of Tom’s scams as the truth because, “No thief would think to do that,” we can fully appreciate it because we’ve seen how much thought, time, and care this exceptional thief put into it.  

Perhaps the best example of this involves a murder committed on a boat, after which Tom has to figure out a way to keep anyone from finding the victim. Having to get rid of an inconvenient dead body has become such a tired trope of modern serialized drama that, when I Google my name and the phrase “corpse disposal,” I get hundreds of hits from various reviews I’ve written. Yet the way Zaillian stages the killing’s aftermath — and the many, many, many, many steps Tom has to take to accomplish things that master criminals in similar stories can do with no effort — is at times inventive, at times unbearably tense, at times darkly hilarious, and sometimes all three at once. It’s the kind of sequence I thought I never needed to see again, but in this case, I never wanted it to stop. 

Like the Heisenberg-verse shows, Ripley believes deeply in Chekhov’s Gun, introducing details early in episodes that are clearly going to come back later and cause problems for our protagonist, and turning our recognition of that into a weapon to ratchet up the level of suspense. It’s obvious, for instance, that when Tom moves into an apartment building with an unreliable elevator, the thing will malfunction at the absolute worst time for him. But that only makes the stress of the inevitable moment feel exquisite, rather than predictable.

That patience is also obvious in how Zaillian and Oscar-winning director of photography Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) shoot the series in crisp, gorgeous, black-and-white. Elswit was the cinematographer on George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, so he has experience with both this palette and mid-20th century styles. Tom quickly becomes obsessed with the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio, especially after Dickie explains that Caravaggio was a murderer who created some of his greatest art while on the run from the authorities. Nearly every shot of Ripley looks suitable for framing, with the use of light, shadow, all the most interesting angles, and the local architecture to create a world of infinite, terrifying grays, and that looks and feels at least as old as the era of Tom’s artistic idol. As Ravini, a Roman police detective who grows increasingly interested in what Tom has been up to, Maurizio Lombardi is styled and shot as if the filmmakers had somehow built a time machine to hire an Italian character actor from 1961.

The performances are as suitably chilly as the photography (or all those ice cubes). Scott in particular has to get across so much through the stillness of his body language, and through a face that Tom has trained to rarely show what he’s really feeling. It’s all in the tiny movements and the micro expressions, and it’s all clear to us, no matter how opaque Ripley is to everyone around him.

Johnny Flynn in ‘Ripley’

NETFLIX

The one risk of leaning into Tom’s lack of empathy, though, is that Ripley has to rely almost entirely on its plotting to work. And there are a couple of late contrivances here that are needed to get the narrative to end in the spot Zaillian wants it to. Minghella’s movie tells a slightly different variation of the basic story, but it does a more meticulous job of showing how people get fooled by various lies Tom tells. Here, a bit more willing suspension of disbelief is required, particularly for a scene where Tom dons a flimsy disguise to speak with someone who has met him several times and should recognize him, regardless. But on the whole, the finale is deeply satisfying, including a nod to the character’s long literary and screen history that should be delightful even to the many viewers who won’t get the reference.

Among the more amazing facts about this amazing show is that Netflix was able to pick it up off the scrap heap. Zaillian and company made it for the pay cable channel that was once known as Showtime, but is now known as Paramount+ With Showtime, which should not be confused with the related streaming service Paramount+, which can also be Paramount+ With Showtime if you pay more each month. Somewhere in the midst of various changes of brand name, management, delivery system, and direction, it was decided that the primary mission going forward should be to focus on franchises and other IP, which is why there are multiple Billions, Dexter, and Ray Donovan spinoffs and prequels in the works. Anything not part of that mission was cast aside. But the thing is, this is IP: five famous books, that have been translated multiple times, including into a movie that’s a generational touchstone.

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That Netflix could just scoop up a show this good — and with potential to run many seasons in success, potentially even beyond adapting the original Highsmith stories — from a competitor that didn’t understand the treasure it had is, well, a crime worthy of Tom Ripley himself.

All eight episodes of Ripley are now streaming on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole thing. 

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