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Review: 'Ripley' or The Talented Mr. Scott

Kurt Loder on

Few movies have been in less pressing need of a remake than Anthony Minghella's 1999 "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Based on Patricia Highsmith's deliciously sociopathic 1955 novel, Minghella's film approached perfection with its knotty plot, sun-washed photography (Italy's Amalfi Coast has rarely sparkled more ravishingly), and memorable cast -- Matt Damon and Jude Law as Tom Ripley and his prey, Dickie Greenleaf, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the menacing swine Freddie Miles.

Ripley, Highsmith's soulless con man and serial killer, was the author's most popular character; she further explored his amusing depravities in four more books, and rented him out to the movies for a series of French, German and Italian adaptations, in which he was played by Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich, among others.

Now, on Netflix, we have "Ripley," an eight-part miniseries that radically reconfigures the elements of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and then, in a conclusion that can only be called avant-garde, shoots them off into the sun. The picture is really something to see. And, well, contemplate.

Writer-director Steven Zaillian ("The Irishman") returned to Minghella's Italian coastal settings to shoot his picture. But working with cinematographer Robert Elswit ("Velvet Buzzsaw") he filmed the movie in crisp and altogether gorgeous black-and-white. This sounds counterintuitive -- the sky-blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea drained of color? -- but the result is spectacular. The picture is mad for texture and detail: every swatch of linen and leather, every ancient wall of flaking paint and plaster, every bloody dagger and gleaming deck cleat -- each gets its own appreciative cameo. (There's too much of this over the course of the series' seven-or-so hours, naturally, but it's beautiful anyway.) And the water: the pattering rain, the sloshing faucets, the picturesquely puddled pavements. Everything is an eyeful.

The actors have been carefully cast. Anyone who remembers Andrew Scott's subtle work in "Spectre" or "Sherlock" or last year's great "All of Us Strangers" can probably picture him in the role of Ripley, a man frequently in the midst of a personality crisis, and see simple human feeling suddenly draining from his eyes as some other, more troubling emotion tiptoes in. Johnny Flynn, so wonderfully witty as Mr. Knightley in the 2020 "Emma," brings a gentle sincerity to the role of Dickie Greenleaf (there's none of the sniping hostility that Jude Law brought to the part in Minghella's film). And while Dakota Fanning may not dispatch all thought of Gwyneth Paltrow playing Dickie's girlfriend Marge in the earlier picture, she develops her own power of icy command as the story moves along.

The skeleton of the story here is familiar. Tom Ripley is a small-time grifter barely making it in New York before he serendipitously connects with a shipyard owner named Greenleaf, whose spoiled son Dickie has been living in Italy for several years while he attempts to develop the talent it would require for him to become a painter. His father doesn't see this ever happening. He wants Dickie to return home to enter the family business. Dickie would rather chug nails.

The movie touches down on some famous set-piece scenes -- one a bloody assault in a small motor boat, the other a brutal confrontation with the odious Freddie Miles. (There's probably no way any actor could surpass Hoffman's performance in this role, but the gender-indifferent Eliot Sumner manages to be creepy in a different way.)

 

The film has pacing problems that might wear some viewers out at times. But it's in part because of this that the eighth and last episode of the series hits with such surreal power. All of a sudden, almost as if out of nowhere, we find the characters moving into realms of the story we never knew existed before. There's quite a lot of Caravaggio consciousness scattered through the film -- setting up a correspondence between Ripley and the revered Italian painter, who was also a criminal and killer. And of course there's much entertaining confusion about who is and who isn't Tom and/or Dicky. Also a palace party and a medieval murder. And there's much entertaining banter among Italian cops in various cities. (One of the pleasures of an international production like this is the opportunity to experience new kinds of skill and charisma.)

Whatever you make of the series' pace (it takes seven-some hours to tell a story that Minghella told in about two hours and 20 minutes), there's more of Highsmith's book here, and a considerable amount of new stuff -- and the production is never dull to look at. Also, during a stop in Venice, we get to hear Ripley convey a bit of recognizable human concern. "Watch your step on the vaporetto," he says.

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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