Netflix's 'Ripley' — Caravaggio, queer glances, and pictorial piazzas

  • by Joshua Polanski
  • Tuesday April 9, 2024
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Andrew Scott in 'Ripley' (photo: Netflix)
Andrew Scott in 'Ripley' (photo: Netflix)

Patricia Highsmith's confounding Tom Ripley is no stranger to screen adaptations. The mysterious and perhaps repressed bisexual con man has been front and center of several interpretations.

From the great French actor Alain Delon's libertine Tom in 1960's "High Noon" to Matt Damon's boyish charismatic take in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and arguably even spawning his own fan-fic with Barry Keoghan in "Saltburn," there have been plenty of Tom Ripleys and fittingly so.

The new eight-episode limited series from Netflix stars the beloved Andrew Scott fresh off "All of Us Strangers," one of the most discussion-worthy queer films of the 2020s, in a dark, calculating, and alluring run at the character. The series adapts the Richard "Dickie" Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) affair that trots all across Italy from the first novel.

Hired by Dickie's very wealthy father to venture from New York City to Atrani, Italy to convince Dickie to put an end to his endless life of leisure abroad and return home, Tom, a professional swindler with a plethora of fake identities, immediately seizes the opportunity to substitute his own legal issues in New York with adventure abroad.

He and Dickie grow close — or, at least Tom makes sure to impose himself until they appear to others as dear friends — and this drives a wedge between Dickie and his fiancée Marge Sherwood, who Dakota Fanning plays perfectly with her inquisitive eyes and concealing face. The men's closeness bubbles into trouble before taking a spin into a deceitful web of murder, art theft, and forgery.

Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and Andrew Scott in 'Ripley' (photo: Netflix)  

Art, Art, & More Art
Set in high bourgeoise Italy of the 1960s, visual art of all sorts seems to stalk and surround Tom in the world. Gargoyles, saintly statues, and Dickie's amateur paintings barely touch the surface.

Writer and director Steven Zaillian ("All the King's Men") returns with frequent interest to the statues of Catholic saints and biblical characters. Their Catholicity matters less than their chiseled symbolism as things that are created. Most often, these artistic creations depict men, though that might have more to do with the patriarchal swing behind art and religious history.

More important than the statues are Picasso and especially Caravaggio, the latter of whom can't be ignored as an artist of homoerotic depictions and who, like the criminal at the center of Highsmith's novels, tried to evade the authorities as a murderer. His paintings set the tone for "Ripley" and reverberate in the showrunner's decision to shoot the entire series in a sultry black and white.

Zaillian almost convinces the viewer to see Tom through a Caravaggio-esque perspective of a tortured, sexually repressed, and mythological artist. The real faux-Caravaggio is Zaillian himself and perhaps cinematographer Robert Elswit. Their images, after all, give "Ripley" the weight and beauty of museum art.

The sensational and detailed landscapes of Rome, Venice, and Atrani, along with the quaint vintage public transit systems of Italy and New York, look not like the black and white films of the '60s (or earlier) but more like the crisp digital black and white one might find in a catalog of contemporary street photography from Magnum Photos.

Sometimes, as with a few bird's eye view shots of trains in the Italian countryside, a modernized touch of Caravaggio's incredible and occasionally imposing use of light teases through the high dynamic range digitized images.

The camera trails, leads, and occasionally observes Tom as he traverses through scenic Italy like the main subject in a painter's canvas in avoidance of consequence. The world never outgrows Tom.

Scott imbues the character with the right balance of self-importance and real importance so that he always feels like the center of an artist's creation. He's the David to Samuel, the human focal point in a cityscape.

Andrew Scott in 'Ripley' (photo: Netflix)  

Surreptitious sexuality
There is something innately queer to Tom's surreptitious performance as a friend to Dickie. But, like most other interpretations of Highsmith's Ripley, his sexuality is only implicit even if his obsession with other men moves into jealousy and dressing in their clothes.

Marge certainly thinks he's gay and warns her fiancé of her suspicion, as if the information corroborates her other claims about Tom's shady character. The only onscreen male-on-male kiss comes from a corpse, so it doesn't really count as queer. Physical intimacy of any kind is rare in this cold world. By denying all intimacy, "Ripley" ironically preserves sexual interest.

The sexually-charged glances all of the characters share, especially in the first few episodes, could be construed through a free-flowing queer sexuality if one squints enough.

At the very least, the piercing looks shared between Tom, Dickie, Marge, and Freddie (Eliot Sumner), a sharp and sharply-dressed friend of Dickie's, come charged with sexual energy as well as puzzling curiosity and suspicion. The last episode blurs these the best with Marge coming unexpectedly close to flirting with Tom.

Of course, as a work of the famed lesbian writer Highsmith, Tom Ripley can never stray too far from queer interpretation and interest. The show honors this with a cast that challenges heteronormativity. Scott is a gay man, and Sumner is the non-binary child of Sting and the actor Trudie Styler.

In a glance abundant conversation in the fifth episode, these two queer individuals deliver one of the best and most tense television scenes since the conclusion of "Game of Thrones." It might also be the best hour of television since then.

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