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Ripley Review: Stylish And Dark (But A Little Unnecessary)

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EDITORS’ RATING : 6.5 / 10

Pros
  • Excellent cast and performances
  • A captivating milieu of Italy
  • Penetrating suspense
Cons
  • A flattened look
  • Unsurprising plot points
  • Predictability

Initially ordered and developed by Showtime in 2019, the latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s famous anti-hero, “Ripley,” was eventually sold to Netflix. The streaming service would’ve been a fool to pass on it since the eight-episode limited series is stacked with talent. The show is created, directed, and written by veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who co-wrote, ordered, and developed so many legendary classics — including “Schindler’s List,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Moneyball,” and “The Irishman” — in the last four decades that his track record screams quality in itself. Add to that the fantastic lead trio of Andrew Scott, Johnny Flynn, and Dakota Fanning, plus an excellent cast of Italian actors, and you have something prestigious on your hands. That said, however, the series inevitably begs the question: Is the story of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” that most of the world knows already worth being told again? I’ll get back to answering that later.

“Ripley” begins in the 1960s in New York, where Tom Ripley (Scott channeling his inner psychopath) lives in a crummy studio apartment next to other losers he clearly despises. He’s forging checks and tricking people over the phone to send him money, but he’s not exactly making a luxurious or sumptuous living out of it. Ripley is a low-life criminal with some smarts, dreaming about being a respected, well-liked, and, most importantly, rich man that everyone admires and looks up to. But he knows that he’s a long way from getting there.

To his worry and surprise, a mysterious private detective tracks him down for a wealthy client who has a business proposition for him. At first, he’s all nerves thinking that someone might’ve found out about his scams, and refuses the meeting. But after failing to reap the rewards of his latest swindle, he decides to pay a visit to the man behind the fancy business card. Mistakenly, Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan) believes that Ripley is a friend of his son, Richard (Johnny Flynn), and asks him to bring “Dickie” home from Italy, where he’s been living for many years and dwindling the family’s trust money that his parents can’t legally cut off now. Mr. Greenleaf is also willing to pay a more than reasonable amount to Ripley if he agrees to go and try. Naturally, Ripley can’t believe his luck; this is the opportunity he was waiting for. He packs up and leaves for the lovely Italian town of Atrani to force himself into the life of Richard and his girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning), in the hope of becoming the wealthy man he always aspired to be — even if it takes fraud, deceit, and even murder to get there.

A colorless Italy and its trappings

Credit to Steven Zaillian: visually and tonally, “Ripley” couldn’t feel more different from the classic 1999 movie adaptation starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. Shot entirely in black and white with an abundance of static frames, poetic compositions, and idyllic locales, the series evokes a noirish vibe from the get-go — befitting the protagonist’s parasitic lifestyle of deceiving and exploiting every soul he can.

And while the 1960s of New York in the first episode is an apt match for Zaillian’s approach, it doesn’t work the same for anything after it. The black and white dulls the Italian Riviera and deprives its vivacious colors and effervescent atmosphere that make the country so majestically appealing. Though it’s a conscious and thematic choice, it’s hard to overlook how many nuances we miss out on (the luscious clothes, the breathtaking panorama, the vivid paintings) because of it. It almost feels like a waste to shoot the majority of the series in Italy and then purposely flatten its mesmerizing beauty for dramatic purposes.

That’s not to say the series doesn’t look good — it’s as elaborate and well-directed as it can be — but it’s hard to envision a version where the colors couldn’t have added more than the desolate monochrome.

Unnerving tranquillity and a fantastic Andrew Scott

What works great with “Ripley,” though, is the constantly building tension that Steven Zaillian injects even into the most ordinary scenes. By its nature, the series unfolds at a leisurely pace, taking its time to create suspense, but boy, it pays off handsomely with every climax in each episode. Combined with Andrew Scott’s magnetic lead performance, the show conveys a sort of unnerving tranquillity that charges even the most innocent dialogue and normal situation with a sense of threat and danger that could manifest at any moment — and rest assured, it will. Given his wide range as an actor, we already know what he’s capable of, but Scott truly delivers a mesmerizing character study of a despicable, unrepentant, yet also alluring anti-hero whose greed overrides the few emotions he possesses as a human being.

From the beginning, Zaillian portrays Ripley for exactly what he is — a master manipulator, impostor, and psychopath — but provides subtle layers to his monstrous personality. His inherent wickedness is never in question, but we get to peek into his mind and study the values and principles (if we can call them that) he lives by and how he attempts to compensate for his abominable actions with artificial kindness. It’s an extremely delicate task to get this right, but thanks to Scott’s delivery and Zaillian’s artistic style, “Ripley” more or less succeeds in that aspect.

Narratively, however, there are very few surprises here that viewers even vaguely familiar with the character (or its portrayal in the 1999 adaptation) won’t see coming. Although, due to its length, the series covers more ground than the feature did, I’m unsure if its reimagined perspective justifies the retelling of a universally known and abundantly adapted material by now. Overall, “Ripley” feels like a style-over-substance exercise for Scott and Zaillian — a painstakingly artistic one at that — rehashing a story already told several times on the big and small screen. However, there’s definitely potential to expand the character’s journey in this singular milieu, and the finale certainly prepares the ground for more to come if there’s a demand for it.

All eight episodes of “Ripley” premiere on April 4 on Netflix.

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