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6 April 2024

We are all Tom Ripley

In our culture of fraud and corruption, Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero is just another con man.

By Ryan Ruby

Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley pickpockets the plot of Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903) and turns it into a detective thriller set in the early years of the Cold War. Oblivious shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf taps the eponymous Tom Ripley, a low-life grifter and petty criminal, to be the “ambassador” to his wayward son Dickie, who has been painting and soaking up martinis and sunshine on the Amalfi Coast in the company of the aspiring novelist Marge Sherwood. Tom’s mission is to bring Dickie home to New York, where his ailing mother and business responsibilities await him. Instead, he slowly insinuates himself into Dickie’s life, breaks up his relationship with Marge, murders Dickie in a boat in Sanremo, steals his identity, murders his close friend Freddie Miles in Rome, double-crosses the Italian police, and makes off with Dickie’s sizeable inheritance.

Eminently filmable, Highsmith’s adaptation of James has in turn been adapted for the screen several times: most memorably by René Clément in 1960’s Purple Noon (starring the newcomer Alain Delon as Tom, as well as Maurice Ronet and Marie Laforêt as Dickie and Marge, respectively) and by Anthony Minghella in 1999’s The Talented Mr Ripley (starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow). A retelling of James’s Ambassadors plot is especially useful for taking the temperature of America’s self-mythologising as a youthful, New World nation, and measuring its anxieties about its status as an emerging, then apex, then declining imperial power. Let’s take the thermometer from under the tongue of Steven Zaillian’s new Netflix mini-series Ripley, starring Andrew Scott, Johnny Flynn and Dakota Fanning, and see how hot – or cold – things are in April 2024.

Minghella’s film deliberately departs from Highsmith in several ways, including the addition of romantic subplots for Dickie and Tom, and a shrewd change of Dickie’s hobby from Sunday painter to jazz saxophonist. Though it moves the timeline forward slightly to 1960-61, Zaillian’s Ripley attempts to pass itself off as an ultra-faithful treatment of the novel. To convey this, Zaillian shoots in high-contrast black and white, as if to say: this is how Ripley would have been adapted in Highsmith’s era if film-makers then had access to the latest digital camera technology.

This cinematographic choice is a mistake that sets the tone for everything else about the miniseries. Of a piece with other films from 21st-century cinematic franchises – such as Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for which Zaillian wrote the screenplay – the mood of Ripley is unremittingly dour and grave, a winter of discontent all year round. There are churning seas, leaky taps and puddles of grime, but when the series is not dripping with blood, it is dripping with melancholy and nostalgia.

[See also: Patricia Highsmith’s many vices]

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Ours is a deeply nostalgic era, but the backward-looking gestures in Ripley are completely without content. I enjoy a moody noir and a crisply shot Italian cityscape as much as the next person, but unlike Clément’s or Minghella’s sun-kissed adaptations, no one in Ripley seems to be sucking much sweetness out of la dolce vita. Not Dickie Greenleaf, a trust-fund kid who whiles away his youth in one of the most sumptuous places on Earth at the high noon of his country’s cultural, economic and military influence, nor the fellow American who contrives to take it all away from him, more from instinct than from greed. The sole moment of longing and vicarious luxuriousness I experienced while watching the series was not when Tom checked into his suite at the Hotel Excelsior in Rome under Dickie’s name, nor when he was shown around the Venetian palazzo he buys with the proceeds of Dickie’s stolen sailboat, it was following the camera through the galleries of a Villa Borghese almost empty of tourists.

As with most nostalgic artefacts, Ripley is also sterile. Whereas Minghella dials up the homoeroticism in Highsmith’s novel to great effect – especially in the bathtub chess scene or when Tom is caught trying on Dickie’s clothes – Zaillian throws a wet blanket on it. His main actors are so lacking in physical and emotional chemistry that it is impossible to imagine any points of this love triangle running the risk of tripping into bed with each other, or anyone else for that matter. Andrew Scott and Johnny Flynn are, respectively, 47- and 41-year-old actors playing men in their late twenties or early thirties, and neither does a very good job of convincing us they are still in that formative period where they might experience the heady thrill of a new friendship or self-discovery.

Although it is unfair to compare anyone to an Adonis-like Alain Delon, Scott’s Ripley has the face, physique and comportment of a bruiser rather than someone who has had to live by his wits; Flynn’s Dickie lacks the enviable charisma and feral sexual magnetism given to him by either Highsmith or Jude Law; and Fanning’s chaste Marge looks like she’s accidentally wandered on to the set of Ripley from a film about a convent. As a result, the accusations of homosexuality that she and Tom use as psychological weapons in their dealings with Dickie and Inspector Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi) are as limp as a plot contrivance.

In the role of Dickie’s posh friend, the androgynous playwright Freddie Miles, Eliot Sumner shows much-needed flashes of public-school wit in a script whose emotional tenor otherwise never exceeds the apathetic. But their performance cannot escape the shadow of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career-defining turn in 1999 as the same character. Not even a lord of misrule like John Malkovich – who, having played the art dealer Tom will become in Liliana Cavani’s 2002 adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the third volume of Highsmith’s Ripliad, shows up as a metatextual joke in the final two episodes – is on screen long enough to rescue Ripley from utter mirthlessness. The only two moments of physical intimacy in the series find Marge sitting chastely on Dickie’s lap while Tom spies on them, and – in a touch that at least has the virtue of piquancy – Tom concealing himself from a potential witness by making out with Freddie’s corpse.

The screen time Zaillian lavishes on Tom’s attempts to hide the bodies of his victims – each takes up the better part of an episode – would have been better spent on developing the characters to a degree of humanity that would encourage us to care whether they get murdered or get away with murder. Damon’s Ripley preferred to be a “fake somebody than a real nobody”, genuinely loved two of the three men he kills, and is tormented by the happiness he must sacrifice in order to survive. Scott’s is too one-dimensional a sociopath to indulge in such sentimentalities. Only in a few moments – as when he gasps in disbelief at his own success upon first seeing the Hotel Excelsior, or when he purchases the same glass ashtray in Venice as he used in Rome to kill Freddie – does he seem to enjoy the fruits of his labour or take pride in his work. He’s more of a grinder than a hustler. In that sense, too, he is our contemporary.

Flynn’s affable, if gullible, Dickie and Sumner’s clever, if snobbish, Freddie – the two wealthiest characters – are portrayed, I’m sorry to report, more sympathetically than our lumpen proletarian anti-hero. Aside from a Neapolitan gangster, the spinster landlady who pines for him, a Palermo bellhop, and his future John Malkovich self, nobody is convincingly fond of him. He rarely ever receives a friendly smile, not even from the cats of Rome. This not only amounts to a complete reversal of the class politics of Highsmith’s novel, it also deprives us of its primary pleasure: cheering on the villain.

Highsmith makes the case that Tom is in fact a superior aristocrat to Dickie – a genuine appreciator and student of the culture Dickie, who has always had access to it, treats as a lifestyle signifier – and is thus deserving of his position and his privileges. All the versions make it clear that Dickie is a third-rate dilettante, but although Tom implausibly learns to paint better than Dickie in a matter of months in Ripley (he learns Italian with a no less implausible alacrity), it is not clear that he enjoys art any more than anything else. Threaded throughout the series is an extended parallel invented by Zaillian between Tom and the painter Caravaggio, who murdered a man in Rome in 1606. After Dickie recounts the story in a Naples café shortly before Tom meets Freddie, Caravaggio becomes Tom’s favourite painter. In each new city he visits in Italy his first stop is always to see the Caravaggios.

The initial cleverness of this allegory is subject to diminishing returns as it is repeated with decreasing subtlety, culminating in a flashback to the 1606 incident in the opening scene of the final episode, which is then studded with cuts between Caravaggio’s face and Tom’s, Caravaggio’s murder weapon (a phallic stiletto) and Tom’s murder weapon (a vaginal ashtray), and so on. This, incidentally, is in keeping with the heavy-handed imagery of the whole. When Tom first meets Dickie and Marge on the beach in Atrani – Highsmith’s Mongibello – to take one example, his shadow falls across their sleeping bodies; walking the steps to Dickie’s villa, to take another, is an ascent to the upper echelons of the class system.

For a suspense thriller that clearly believes detail is important, this obviousness is on the flipside of carelessness. The fountain pen Tom steals from Dickie to forge his signatures becomes a sight gag, but no one remarks upon the fact that Scott is left-handed and Flynn is right-handed, just as the redoubtable Inspector Ravini fails to notice that Scott’s eyes are brown whereas Flynn’s eyes are blue, as it says in the passport that Tom has glued his own picture into. As for the presumably extremely valuable Picasso that Tom steals from Dickie’s study, it ceases to be mentioned during the entirety of Ravini’s investigation, which is precisely how the viewer knows that, in the last scene, Tom will be hanging it up on his wall in Venice.

But Caravaggio and Tom are, in fact, inversely parallel: the former is a painter who commits a murder, the latter is a murderer who commits a painting. Zaillian’s allegory serves to dehistoricise and exonerate the man it is equally unwilling to celebrate. Tom, on this telling, is less a product of America during the Cold War than he is a quasi-gnostic avatar of eternally recurring violence. The conquering entitlement and condescension the postwar Americans – Tom included – show towards the Italians in Highsmith’s novel is displaced, in Ripley, on to the Italians themselves, in the hard-working Ravini’s chastisement of his lazy Sicilian colleagues. Many of the Italian characters go out of their way to reassure Tom – and perhaps also the viewers of Ripley – that they are fond of Americans. Zaillian’s redating of Highsmith seems designed to place Ripley at the birth of New Wave cinema – Tom could theoretically go see Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or indeed Clément’s Purple Noon in the theatres. But it is completely scrubbed of historical details, such as the one about Tom’s Italian teacher being a member of the Communist Party. 

The differences between Minghella’s Ripley and Zaillian’s reflect nothing so much as a shift in America’s attitude towards itself. Both look back on the peak of American global power, but in 1999, during the height of the so-called New Economy and Pax Americana, this was experienced, for better or worse, as continuity and without a bad conscience. Twenty-five years of catastrophic warfare and accelerating economic inequality later, America is falling apart at the seams.

When we first meet Scott’s Ripley he is engaged in a phone scam on behalf of a fake collection agency – something that is all too familiar to contemporary viewers, and unlikely to endear him to them, as other contemporary media disposes audiences to place their allegiance with the rich rather than plucky class insurgents. In 2024, fraud and corruption pervade every institution in American society, on its houses of worship, its sports teams, its schools, hospitals, tech companies, private equity firms, police departments, news outlets, culture industry, and branches of its government. Against this backdrop of widespread social mistrust, it is hard for a man like Tom to distinguish himself. He’s no longer the talented Mr Ripley; just Ripley. A dime a dozen, adjusted for inflation.

[See also: Caspar David Friedrich and the art of kitsch]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward