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Review | Andrew Scott delivers a mesmerizing — and less than talented — Mr. Ripley


In my circles at least, reactions to the news that Andrew Scott would anchor a new adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” followed a predictable and breathless script: The hot priest from “Fleabag” is playing Tom Ripley!

The anticipation was understandable. Those familiar with Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film remember the erotic edge with which it showcased Jude Law, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow at the height of their youth and beauty. One could only imagine what Scott — whose magnetism made his Moriarty the most memorable part of “Sherlock,” and whose electric turn as Fleabag’s love interest (and confessor) in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s beloved series catapulted the Irish actor into a sensation seemingly overnight — would do with the role. He’d become a dreamboat, the object of the whole internet’s crush. What sensual heights would he achieve as Patricia Highsmith’s most popular literary creation, that charismatic con artist whose predilection for murdering obstacles to his social ascent she chronicled over the course of five novels?

Scott’s answer is characteristically compelling, but in a way likely to disappoint his thirstier fans. In Steven Zaillian’s “Ripley,” a gorgeous, witty, cinematic extravaganza chronicling the charlatan’s journey from a bleak existence in New York City to a luxurious one in Italy, the actor expunges every trace of his considerable charm to produce a dour, awkward Tom Ripley whose joyless smile is as false as the signatures he fakes.

This is, to be clear, a fantastic (and pointed) choice. One understands why this man wants to escape his grim surroundings and himself. And why his genial American target, a rich would-be artist named Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), offers to put him up in Italy: Scott plays the character as so overtly bland and unoffending he’s technically unimpeachable even if he’s a little repellent — as Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning), a middling memoirist from Minnesota, discovers while trying to turn Dickie against him. (Scott and Fanning have joked about their characters’ “anti-chemistry.”)

One thing Scott’s choices clarify is that Tom, like his target, and pace the novel’s title, isn’t especially talented. Facing potential charges in New York for a fraud that was rather easily detected, the depressed con artist accepts a lifeline — in the form of a commission (from Dickie’s wealthy father) to persuade Dickie to abandon his life of leisure on the Italian coast and come home. Tom’s main trick, such as it is, is never saying more than he must. In this instance, his habitual taciturnity saves him from correcting the elder Greenleaf’s mistaken impression that he and his son are friends. (Later, it very comically spares him from needing to express an opinion of Dickie’s “art.”) Tom’s gains thanks to his abilities as a decent and sometimes compulsive mimic are dwarfed by the advances he makes by simply riffing on the ineptitude of others — and by performing a kind of embarrassing semi-transparency in social situations that ironically earns him Dickie’s trust.

Compensating for Scott’s restraint is the camera, a wildly expressive agent that quickly establishes itself as the show’s biggest character (and only true artist). Robert Elswit’s black-and-white cinematography has no chill. Sometimes pretentious, sometimes playful, the show rejoices in making almost every shot into a painterly wonder. Approaches vary. The lens might settle briefly for virtuosic stillness — letting the subject wander through a gorgeously composed and static frame instead of following them through it, with everything in technically brilliant focus — then swing into maniacal motion, dramatizing the act of typing a letter (for instance) by swooping through so many different focal planes and angles that the scene starts to feel unreal, hyperstylized, absurd.

The choice to shoot the central trio rather straightforwardly can therefore (given the sometimes unflattering realism) feel loaded. The love triangle comes to seem more tedious than tantalizing because of how staunchly this particular camera, which wrings transcendent compositions out of bolts and steel beams and mousetraps and blood, refuses to glamorize its very-good-looking principals. The effect feels like a deliberate sendup — maybe of the breathless frisson saddling Gatsby-adjacent narratives about social climbers (there are no Daisy Buchanans here), or (perhaps) of the youthful beauty upon which Minghella’s 1999 adaptation lingers. The lens sometimes rubs the viewer’s nose in imperfection: Tom’s wrinkles, Marge’s stray hairs. Shooting them in black-and-white only heightens the extent to which these characters, reaching for something like art or mastery or transcendence, sag. And if it gamely covers familiar subjects (the glories of Italy) as well as idiosyncratic ones (the feelings of desk clerks), the camera’s funniest choice may be its refusal to worship these beautiful actors in conventional terms.

It’s mildly counterintuitive that Tom, the story’s trickster, becomes the leaden anchor on a story that should bubble with effervescent fantasies about penetrating the rarefied circles of the lazy rich. In practice, those circles barely materialize; Tom, an epicurean who values beautiful objects and settings, isn’t actually much interested in the silly people who occupy them, and neither (more to the point) is the camera. So we spend most of our time with Tom, in silence, alone.

In these more solitary contexts, the camera grows experimental and serious, capturing the misery rather than the pleasure of travel, meditating on the vigor a certain kind of leisure requires (frequently literalizing Tom’s upward climb with punitive shots of spiraling stairs) and quietly registering Tom’s changing physicality as he learns to occupy those spaces. It also documents, with loving, exhaustive fidelity, the logistical and physical work of conning — at a level of detail I haven’t seen since “Better Call Saul.”

Zaillian’s adaptation is conceptually as well as visually wry, lushly hyper-referential and packed with winks. One episode is called “La Dolce Vita,” after the 1960 film, and John Malkovich, who played Ripley in 2002’s “Ripley’s Game,” turns up here as a genial fellow impostor. This miniseries is, in other words — despite or perhaps because of Scott’s magnificent erasure of his own charisma — mordantly funny. There are jokes aplenty here, beginning with a very early sequence that riffs, visually, on the idea of stepping into another man’s shoes. Many such grace notes are only evident on repeat viewings. Thankfully, “Ripley” richly rewards re-watching.

As for Tom Ripley: He has always been a weird and slippery character, the kind directors try to classify and tame. Highsmith envisioned him as what we would now call an antihero: sympathetic because he’s our point-of-view character, even as he’s somewhat relatably corrupted into becoming something monstrous. But Highsmith went a step further by refusing to narratively discipline her criminal to make the experiment morally palatable. “I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not,” she wrote in her 1966 book, “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.” A curious and contrarian position for a writer of crime fiction (of all things) to take. But that was Highsmith: A lesbian notable for her talent and misogyny, she was an unrepentant bigot and provocateur who harbored no illusions about her antihero. Or herself. “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book,” she wrote of Tom Ripley in one her notebooks. “That is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too. Thus the subconscious always proceeds the consciousness, or reality, as in dreams.” She sometimes signed her letters “Tom/Pat.”

While she approved of Alain Delon’s characterization of Tom in “Purple Noon,” René Clément’s 1960 adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” she called the ending — which culminates in Tom’s arrest — “a terrible concession to so-called public morality.” One can only imagine what she would have made of Minghella’s version, which saddled the character with an ability to love, a conscience, and punished him brutally for his transgressions. Minghella defended his choice: “There’s so much nihilism in film right now. If I’m going to tell a story that’s so bleak and so much a journey of a soul, if in the end Ripley was just going to go about his business, what’s the journey?”

Zaillian, who wrote all eight episodes of “Ripley” — and whose former credits include “Schindler’s List,” “Moneyball” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” — has an answer. And it’s every bit as good as its protagonist isn’t.

All eight episodes of Ripley premiere April 4 on Netflix.


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