WATCH CLOSELY: “Ripley” — A Man in Shadows and Light

By Peg Aloi

Ripley is one of the most entertaining and finely wrought thriller series to come from Netflix in years.

Andrew Scott as Ripley in Ripley. Photo: Netflix

There’s a scene in Netflix’s Ripley (a brilliant new adaptation by veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian of Patricia Highsmith’s novel series) that slyly comments on the series and its subtle writing and production design. Tom Ripley, played by Andrew Scott (All of Us Strangers), has left his life in New York City as a small-time grifter behind, when the father of an acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), pays him to go find his wayward son, who is blowing through his trust fund living a bohemian life as a would-be painter in Italy. Having been introduced to the work and the lurid story of Italian artist Caravaggio by Dickie, Tom stands alone before a huge painting in a Naples art museum, studying it intently. A man approaches behind him (perhaps a museum docent, or another art lover) to share the moment, standing in the shadows, intoning “the light, the light.” We’re being invited to appreciate the stunning chiaroscuro visuals throughout Ripley, rendered with stunning contrasts and compositions by master cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia, Inherent Vice). But also, perhaps, we are being given a chance to ponder what makes this man tick, and whether his dark deeds are in any way worthy of sympathy or admiration.

There is no doubt regarding the horrific nature of Tom’s crimes. The series opens with a scene that shows Tom dragging a body down the shadowy staircase of a large apartment building. A voice calls out in Italian, “who’s there?” and Tom freezes. A nearby cat, who seems to live in the hallway, looks on — unfazed but perhaps, like viewers, also curious and horrified. The scene transitions to one six months earlier, with Tom in New York, realizing his petty crimes are a dead end that could land him in jail, and about to embark on a life-changing journey.

Tom can hardly believe his good fortune at being invited to stay in Dickie’s massive, well-appointed home in the coastal town of Atrani. But Dickie’s girlfriend Marge (a nuanced role played by Dakota Fanning), a travel writer, is immediately suspicious of him, asking tricky questions about his past. Tom is obviously enamored of Dickie, whose affable nature and slouchy good looks are everything he wants to be, and be with. When other friends of Dickie meet Tom, they’re likewise wary, all sidelong glances and sarcastic chatter, suspecting that Tom is dishonest and opportunistic. One friend, Freddie Miles (Eliot Sumner, son of Sting, and Trudie Styler, in a fine breakout performance) has met Tom before in New York, though Tom denies it. A privileged, wealthy gadabout, Freddie is protective of Dickie. When circumstances lead to Dickie’s apparent disappearance, Freddie suspects Tom of foul play.

The narrative’s crime thriller elements unfold with unexpectedly rich relish. A wonderful roster of Italian actors play the police, hotel employees, servants, and detectives, lending intriguing and subtle texture. Their observations and perspectives illuminate Tom’s gradual ascent from small-time con artist to cold-blooded killer. The cat, Lucio, is a constant and fascinating presence: silent, watchful, perhaps wise to Tom’s predatory, animalistic urges. The small and artful stylistic touches make this a rollicking and absorbing watch. Ripley is one of the most entertaining and finely wrought thriller series to come from Netflix in years.

No spoilers here, but one of my favorite scenes is when Tom, lounging in Dickie’s villa, listens to tapes that are teaching him basic Italian. The phrase “How much money do you need?” is followed by “That’s not enough.” This simple sequence progresses with dark hilarity: “What’s the matter with you?” and “Who is this?” Tom acts on his greed and ambition with some degree of calculation, but also with shocking recklessness; yet the universe rescues him from consequences time and time again. Tom’s transgressions can be coldly calm as well as wildly violent.

For those who’ve seen 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (directed by Anthony Minghella), this version may seem stark and icy when compared to a film starring golden-haired stars like Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett. But Zaillian, in his second foray into directing, decided to forgo color for a somber palette of whitewashed villas, gray oceans, and trees that inevitably cast ominous shadows. Noir and Gothic sensibilities are uppermost here, an aesthetic that’s almost literary in spirit (black ink against a white page).

But this visual restraint only enriches the beauty of the story’s objects of desire: gleaming cigarette cases, crystal decanters of whisky, Dickie’s enormous array of art supplies and half-finished canvases, his rumpled but fine linen suits. It is easy to imagine the hues of gold and blue in the flaxen locks and pale eyes of Johnny Flynn (Beast, The Dig), luminously lit by an Italian coastal sun. Scott’s black eyes and hair serve as an apt pictorial foil to the innocence of the cheerful, guileless Dickie. The contrasting looks of the two actors (as opposed to the twin-like similarities of Law and Damon) is at the heart of the series’ bold, breathtaking look: these two men could not be more different. Tom is driven by an unscrupulous, predatory yearning for things bright and beautiful, things he thinks he deserves — and will acquire by any means necessary.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She has written on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Dread Central, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Refinery29, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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