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Netflix's stylish 'Ripley' stretches the grift — and the tension — to the max

Director Steven Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit make the most of the <em>Ripley</em>'s<em> </em>black and white aesthetic, presenting stunning images of Italian landscape.
Lorenzo Sisti
Director Steven Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit make the most of the Ripley's black and white aesthetic, presenting stunning images of Italian landscape.

Author Patricia Highsmith wrote her first of several novels about Tom Ripley, a successful con man, in 1955. Four decades later, that first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was adapted into a 1999 movie, starring a young Matt Damon. Now, 25 years later, it's being adapted again – this time as an eight-part Netflix miniseries called Ripley.

There are a few things you should know about this new miniseries right at the start – and I hope that each of them will help persuade you to tune in and watch. One is that all eight episodes of this new adaptation are written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Searching for Bobby Fischer, co-wrote the screenplay for Moneyball, and wrote the screenplays for Schindler's List, Awakenings and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another is that this new Ripley entrusts the title role of con artist Tom Ripley to Andrew Scott. If his name isn't familiar, he's the handsome young actor who got international recognition for appearing in the second season of Fleabag– in a role commonly referred to as "the hot priest."

And there's a third truly noteworthy aspect to Netflix's Ripley: All eight episodes are in black and white – a rarity for modern TV. Ripley is set in the early 1960s, but the choice of shooting in black and white clearly is based on an aesthetic. Director Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit make the most of it, presenting stunning images of Italian landscapes, art and architecture, as well as piercing closeups worthy of the best film noir.

Andrew Scott plays con man Tom Ripley in a new Netflix series.
Philippe Antonello / Netflix
Andrew Scott plays con man Tom Ripley in a new Netflix series.

Keeping the story of Ripley rooted in its original time period also is more than stylistically satisfying – it's crucial. Ripley was a grifter whose cons worked primarily because the passage of information then was so slow – no cellphones, no internet and plenty of ways to intercept, or lose, things in the mail. Back then, pulling his scams, Ripley could get away with murder. And eventually, he tries to.

Scott, in a tour de force performance, is in virtually every scene in the first five episodes. He's intense even when he's soft-spoken. We first meet Ripley as he's pulling off a detailed mail-fraud con job when he's approached in a local New York bar by a private eye working for a wealthy man, Dickie's father, with an unusual offer. The bar conversation leads to an opportunity for Ripley to go to Italy – all expenses paid – and check in on Dickie, with hopes of persuading him to return home to the States.

When Ripley arrives, he finds Dickie (Johnny Flynn) living in a gorgeous rented Italian villa, in the company of a woman, Marge, who has designs on benefiting from Dickie's lavish lifestyle. But so does Tom – and he gets close enough to be a fellow guest in Dickie's villa.

This triangle – Ripley, Dickie and Marge (Dakota Fanning) – actually becomes a rectangle, thanks to the arrival of another friend of Dickie's, a playwright named Freddie. And each of them, in time, is a possible candidate for Ripley to swindle, seduce or murder. Or some combination of all three.

The tension in this Ripley series is stretched to the max, in a confident and exciting way. One five-page scene in the book, involving a mishap with a small motorboat, is mounted as a 15-minute epic sequence with Ripley that's totally wordless – well, except for one word, which I can't repeat.

And there are other bold narrative and visual surprises throughout. At one point, there's an unexpected but pertinent flashback to the 1600s. Elsewhere, there's a very clever visual trick of translating Italian newspaper headlines into English on screen by morphing them from one language to the other. And somewhere, amid all this glorious black and white, there's one quick splash of color – an effect reminiscent of Schindler's List, one of the other films on Zaillian's resume. And speaking of that resume – as the credited creator, writer and director of Netflix's Ripley, he's added a doozy.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.