Ripley Review: New Adaptation is Dark and Stormy and Not Always in a Good Way

Netflix’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation goes full on noir.

Andrew Scott in Ripley
Photo: Netflix

When we meet Tom Ripley at the start of Steve Zallian’s eight part adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s celebrated novel The Talented Mr Ripley, he’s not the fresh faced chancer of Matt Damon’s Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version. Andrew Scott’s Ripley is a grifter in his 40s, a jaded low-level fraudster living in New York. He’s not even especially talented – or not at this point anyway.

An encounter with shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf sees Ripley heading to Italy on Greenleaf’s dime to lure back his errant son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) who is living in the idyllic city of Atrani on the Amalfi coast. Here Dickie paints, hangs out on his yacht, flirts with the locals and lives in a beautiful home with his girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning). Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie’s life but soon grows obsessed, not just with the lifestyle but with Dickie himself.

If you’re going to set a movie in Italy, hopping between Atrani, Rome, Venice and other luxury beauty spots, shooting entirely in black and white is a bold choice. Yet all episodes of this show are as black and white as the story isn’t… It drapes the show in noirish vibes and highlights the sinister side of the cities. Rolling waves are hellish depths (where at least one person will meet their end), blood is thick, black and viscous; luxury apartments suddenly look musty and dark, with secrets and threats hiding round every corner. Later when detective Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi) is hunting Ripley like a dog, just a wag of a tail behind him at every step, the series evokes classic black and white crime thrillers. But shooting Italy in monochrome does a bit of a disservice to the views. Greenleaf’s life doesn’t feel as idyllic and aspirational as it does in the Minghella version. It’s effectively creepy but it does take something away from our understanding of why it’s so important to Ripley to be part of that life. And it just doesn’t look much fun.

This is a complaint that could be leveled at the series as a whole. To be fair, Zallian’s adaptation isn’t going for fun but spaced out over eight episodes it can feel like a bit of a slog. Scott’s Ripley is a murderous psychopath, he plays the part impressively, though by the character’s nature he is very difficult to read. Is he truly in love with Dickie, who he dreams about and fantasizes conversations with long after they are apart, or was he more upset to be humiliated and exposed? Does he hate Freddie because Freddie sees through him and is wealthy and privileged in a way Ripley is not, or is it more, as is implied, because Freddie (played by Eliot Sumner, the child of Sting and Trudy Styler) is comfortably queer while Ripley struggles with his own sexuality – it’s a theme ever-present throughout and Scott plays Ripley with a bubbling undercurrent of self-hate as well as arrogance. Scenes between the two are some of the best in the series, and that includes those after Freddie’s demise. Ripley’s coldly methodical behavior when trying to dispose of Freddie’s corpse is quietly gripping, and peppered with the darkest humor as he attempts to navigate the elevator, and the streets outside his apartment holding up a dead Freddie in a hat to cover his staved-in skull. He’s about to be caught at any second, and the repeated cuts back to the apartment building’s all-knowing cat who is Ripley’s only true witness are pleasingly knowing. 

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The show is at its best when Ripley is a hair’s breadth from coming undone, flipping between identities on a dime and expertly juggling multiple “truths”. He might be a conman and a murderer, but the audience still wants him to get away with it. Scott’s a great actor and his Ripley is a deeply troubled man, and Marge sees through him almost from the off. For fans of portentous noir, this could be the Ripley for you, and there are further Ripley stories to mine  should Netflix wish to carry the series forward. 

Certainly if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, which still holds up very well 25 years on, you might enjoy the cat and mousing and the strong performances. However, if you have, eight episodes of rather dour cat and mousing where you already know Ripley is going to get away with it might be a Netflix series too far. 

Ripley is available to stream on Netflix now.