Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 27, 2024 4:02 pm 
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Stephen Zaillian steals Patricia Highsmith's debut Ripley novel

What's off kilter about the new Netflix Highsmith adaptation, "Ripley," which as a longtime fan of the novels I nonetheless could not resist? First and foremost it's the gifted Irish, openly gay star, Andrew Scott, known and loved for his performances as Moriarty in "Sherlock," the naughtily sexy priest in "Fleabag," and the central character in the admired and cherished film of late last year, All of Us Strangers. Adam White, in the Independent, and he's not alone, holds that Scott is "all wrong" for this "otherwise decent Netflix adaptation." "Ripley isn’t at all the disaster it could have been, primarily because its source material is so strong that you’d have to be incredibly dense to screw it up too badly," he says.

That is my own basic starting point. Adam White goes on with the warning: "But it’s haunted by the spirit of past adaptations, unable to wrestle free from the shackles of earlier perfection." White also says, in opening, "To describe Tom Ripley as a conman" (i.e. as the Stephen Zaillian Netflix series does) "feels like doing the character a disservice. Patricia Highsmith’s most prolific creation – he appears in five of her novels written over 37 years – is more of a phantom, a lover of shiny things who glides, charmingly if opaquely, through some of the ritziest places on earth." Granted. "He collects identities and riches, while racking up an impressive body count." And then he concludes: "To many he’ll always bear the face of Matt Damon, who played the role in 1999’s glamorous adaptation of Highsmith’s first novel featuring the man, The Talented Mr Ripley. And that, sadly, may be the undoing of Netflix’s new attempt."

The "The Ripliad," Patricia Highsmith's five-novel series, testifies to how popular her deep dive into the sociopathic mind was and is. She takes us and keep us inside the head of a man doing really evil things, murder, theft, fraud, so we become him, and then she lets him get away with it. He never gets caught, and is able to go from anonymous poverty to enjoying wealth and elegant high living. The source material is not only "so strong," as Adam White says, but is a template for a wide variety of versions, as any great character or theme is. Tom Ripley after all is essentially a chameleon.

Thus we can imagine him as Matt Damon, or Alain Delon, or John Malkovich, and now as Andrew Scott. And none of them is "right," if we want an exact copy of Patricia Highsmith's character. Damon is too guilty and insecure and bothered by his gayness (so far from Highsmith's original conception to , in my opinion, allow Minghella's fiilm to be the authoritative version many seem to ant to make it): the "real" Ripley would never feel any of those feelings. Minghella's film is undoubtedly very well done in some ways as a recreation of Highsmith's first Ripley story, but it gets the main character essentially wrong, makes him too soft, and gives him complications he doesn't have. From this character you can't imagine the further books spinning out.

As for Clément's French-language Ripley, Delon is too beautiful and sensuous, but how can we mind that? However, the film commits the unforgivable sin, in Highsmith's eyes, of letting Tom get caught at the end. But the way the film ends, just before that entrapment happens, at an almost orgasmic moment of sensuous pleasure, is wonderful, and this is a peak moment for Delon in his prime. Malkovich, who plays the later Tom in Caviani's Ripley's Game, living a luxurious European life, is a super-confident, snobbish criminal sociopath: the absolute confidence with which the actor enacts his quick, conscious-free murders and cruelties is delicious to watch. No one could do this better. Malkovich's Tom is just a little too hard and evil: the careful Highsmith reader knows that. But Caviani's thriller is a cool portrait of the sociopath as high-level arriviste, unseen anywhere else.

Zaillian's Ripley is "all wrong," the Independent's White says, because Highsmith's Ripley is "an eerily calm social climber" who is"charming and naive" when he's not braining people with heavy objects, Scott plays him as more of "an overt ghoul" who is "oozing sociopathic menace" and looks like a dangerous type in his "leather jacket" and "greased-up hair" and can't be seen as a "high society interloper." White's too polite to mention another thing. Both Scott and Johnny Flynn who plays Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Ripley steals, are in their forties, Flynn 41 and Scott 47. You wonder how Dickie's shipping magnate father (Kenneth Lonergan) could have thought them Princeton classmates.

But Zaillian's series is meant as a gruesomely real horror movie, an arty, beautiful one, whose grim noir quality is dialed up and slowed down, a quality exemplified by the agonizing and central sequence in the boat. Everyone says dp Robert Elswit's black and white cinematography is another main character in Zaillian's series, playing out the director's love of gray, cloudy days. On the one hand in Italy that may seem not that easy or appropriate, but the "look" evokes Italian film from the great period, especially Antonioni. Zaillian is riffing constantly off drabness and awkwardness - while many of the scenes are natty and grand.

When Zaillian's and Scott's Tom Ripley arrives at Atrani on the Amalfi Coast where Dickie and his sort-of girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning) are living, it's the most picturesque and beautiful place, and Dickie's hilltop villa grand and spectacularly situated. But for Ripley it's just a struggle walking "su su su," "up up up," getting out of breath, and staging a very awkward first meeting. He's not in good shape, either, for climbing lots of stairs. What do you remember? The round cupola and grand residence? No, you remember, mainly, Ripley's sweaty climb.

But even Daniel Fienberg, whose review for Hollywood Reporter is one of the new version's most ardent apologies, has to admit that the drawn-out-ness if its key (and most violent) sequences, though being one of its main points of interest, also goes more than a little too far. "I’m not going to claim there aren’t places where Ripley feels indulgently protracted," Fienberg writes. "I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that if you trimmed the shots of staircases and leering sculptures, you’d lose an hour." Fienberg excuses that, and claims that "Zaillian and Elswit," the cinematographer, "make the series so rapturously pretty that my attention never waned." Really? But this is home viewing. How many breaks did he take? Didn't his finger ever linger over the fast-forward key?

If this works, it does so because it's all so strange and yet somehow real. It's a low-key, drawn out horror movie. And it shows how excruciatingly hard it may be to kill people if you're basically an amateur. And many people love it. The interesting thing about "Ripley" is the wide range of reactions, some utterly hating, others adoring, Metacritic with it's okay-but-not-great overall score of 75%, a gentleman C, in between. The Netflix "Ripley" is a weird experience, another facet in the Highsmith game. It's the Highsmith adaptation that comes closest to being a grand and glorious flop (or a very pretentious one -- see Mike Hale's review in the Times that ends "Auteur! Auteur!"), but one thing is sure: it's great series to debate, the chat about - and a touchstone to judge critics by.

This new older Tom Ripley Andrew Scott so adeptly, if for both us and, by his admission, agonizingly, plays is closer to Malkovich's than to Delon's or Damon's. Whether his Tom has the potential of turning into the posh Sybarite with the cool harpsichordist wife and the Palladian villa in Tuscany of Caviani's film is uncertain, but why not?

Scott's Tom "sells things." It's what he does, he tells someone after Dickie is out of the way. (That enables lots of plot detail and escapes from the book's slightly implausible forged will.) You begin to feel as if Zaillian and Scott in fact have stolen Highsmith's story in order to dismantle it and sell it off - to an unsuspecting public. And you wonder what they're going to do with certain elements of it that they have no use for.

Watch the Netfix "Ripley" if you can, or must. But also watch Caviani's Ripley's Game, and please above all, read Highsmith.

"Ripley," an 8-part Netflix mini-series from the Patricia Highsmith "novels" (chiefly just the first one, The Talented Mr. Ripley, though with a cameo appearance by John Malkovich hinting at subsequent volumes). Premiere April 4, 2024. Metacritic rating: 75%.

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