Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley introduced a serial grifter-murderer who was so beguiling despite his unabashed amorality that the details of how he committed his crimes did not matter, nor was it terribly egregious that he got away each time. Unsurprisingly, a new adaptation of Highsmith’s novel places Ripley’s mesmerising talent for survival at the front and centre of the narrative.

Ripley is a struggling confidence trickster who lands the gig of a lifetime: he has to travel to Italy to persuade shipping company scion Dickie Greenleaf to give up his never-ending vacation and return to his family in America.

Dickie is entitled, laidback and casually cruel in the way that only the very rich can be. Tom is enchanted, and wants to become Dickie in every respect and at any cost.

Dakota Fanning and Johnny Flynn in Ripley (2024). Courtesy Netflix.

Each of the two official adaptations of The Talented Mr Ripley gets something right about the literary source. Rene Clement’s gorgeous Purple Noon (1960) scores in the casting of iconic French actor Alain Delon as the enigmatic, contemptuous Ripley. Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon as an emotionally vulnerable Ripley, finds the perfect match between Jude Law and the vain and shallow Dickie.

Although Steven Zaillian’s Netflix series Ripley is a mostly faithful adaptation, its biggest punt is the casting of 47-year-old Andrew Scott in the lead role rather than a younger actor to portray a conman on the make.

“He’s terribly serious, isn’t he, and he can’t be more than twenty-three,” Highsmith observes in The Talented Mr Ripley, her part-admiring, part-mocking tone mimicking Ripley’s own mix of self-loathing and self-regard. “He must have something very important on his mind. Yes, he had. The present and the future of Tom Ripley.”

Scott, the shape-shifting actor from the shows Sherlock and Fleabag and the film All of Us Strangers, plays Ripley as slowly ripening – and rotting – fruit. Ripley is a seasoned conman by the time he’s hired by Dickie’s father Herbert (Kenneth Lonergan) to drag Dickie (Johnny Flynn) back to New York.

Dickie’s girlfriend Margo (Dakota Fanning) is almost instantly wary of Ripley. Dickie’s friend Freddie (Eliot Sumner) too nails Ripley for the poser that he is. After Dickie disappears, and Ripley steals Dickie’s money, Italian policeman Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi) gets onto the case.

Maurizio Lombardi in Ripley (2024). Courtesy Netflix.

Highsmith demanded as much gullibility from her readers as did Tom Ripley from his marks. One of the weakest aspects of The Talented Mr Ripley is reproduced in Zaillian’s adaptation. The novel gets away with sidestepping the most obvious way to nab Ripley, but the show’s glacially paced eight episodes can’t escape this flaw.

The oversight is especially glaring given Ripley’s emphasis on imagery. The series is one of the most magnificent-looking productions to land on a streaming platform, rivalling even movies in its high-contrast black-and-white imagery, atmospheric Italian locations, and symmetrical compositions. Legendary cinematographer Robert Elswit conjures up a series of grid-like frames, with Ripley positioned as the unpredictable element within mathematically precise horizontal and vertical lines.

Dickie’s Italian hideout has everything that Ripley wants – luxury, expensive baubles and dedicated house help – but most of all, priceless art. Ripley adores the Italian painter Caravaggio, and draws strange sustenance from Caravaggio’s notoriety while pursuing his genius. Ripley fancies himself too as an artist, bending the play of light and shadow to his will.

Andrew Scott in Ripley (2024). Courtesy Netflix.

The show’s visual brilliance is as hypnotic as its lead actor. Often seen in isolation, or in tense encounters with only another character, Andrew Scott is as sedulous and seductive as Tom Ripley himself. Scott’s cold, unshowy and alluring performance amply overcomes any doubts over his casting.

John Malkovich, who played the older Ripley in the 2002 Hollywood version of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, has a cameo as an art dealer in the series. Eliot Sumner, the non-binary actor-singer, is a layered choice as the sceptical Freddie, who surfaces the homoerotic subtext in Highsmith’s novel.

In eclipsing Dickie, Ripley appears to be trying to suppress his taboo attraction towards his target. Ripley’s con is a criminal take on the sociological concept of passing, in which individuals claim membership of groups to which they do not inherently belong.

Eliot Sumner in Ripley (2024). Courtesy Netflix.

Ripley is a worthy successor to Purple Noon in capturing its anti-hero’s bloodless scheming. We follow Ripley down a maze of deception almost against our will, eager for him to win if only to see how far he can go. Zaillian’s mapping of character, time and place is impeccable. Yet, the show is too enamoured of its opulent staging to cut back on its needless bloat.

Scenes of Ripley’s crimes give the appearance of taking place in real time, which creates nerve-shredding suspense. The effect is shattered by the Italian policeman’s investigation, which borders on farce. It’s no wonder that the usually impassive Ripley allows himself a smirk ever so often.

Ripley (2024).

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‘Plein Soleil’ is one of the best adaptations of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’