Ripley review – Andrew Scott is absolutely spellbinding

Here he is, then: every ounce of his talent, ineffable charm and lightly reptilian hotness on display. Andrew Scott steps up to play Patricia Highsmith’s titular antihero in Netflix’s eight-part adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (the first volume of a series of pulpy novels now known as the “Ripliad”).

When we first meet him, Tom Ripley is living in a borderline flophouse in New York and scratching an inelegant living as a petty, white-collar criminal; diverting people’s post and cheques, and running fake debt collection agencies. But you can’t keep a bad man – or a good fraudster – down for long. When Dickie Greenleaf’s father offers him the job (the only one of Dickie’s friends who will entertain the idea) of heading out on an all-expenses paid trip to Italy to try to persuade his son (played by Johnny Flynn) to give up his wastrel life in Europe and come home, he grabs the opportunity. By which I mean: runs with it clutched to his chest with both hands, as far as it will take him.

Soon, Tom has inveigled his way into Dickie’s life, gaining his trust and gently moulding himself around his friend’s personality and needs, while the golden boy’s coolly appraising girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), watches with increasing suspicion from her increasingly sidelined position. Fans of the book and what has come to be seen – until, possibly, now – as the definitive screen version of it, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (released in 1999, starring Matt Damon as Tom, Jude Law as Dickie and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge), will know the plot. But its fresh execution is quite something.

It all looks gorgeous … Marge (Dakota Fanning), Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) and Ripley (Andrew Scott). Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix/AP

Ripley is shot entirely in black and white, and the noir element is not soft-pedalled. Rainy nights abound. If there are puddles, we will see Ripley reflected in them. We hear every hiss and crackle of every cigarette, and watch every plume of smoke from those resting in (occasionally fateful) ashtrays. It looks, as we swan around Italy, utterly gorgeous.

It also moves incredibly slowly. For those who can lean in and appreciate the capture of a sensibility summarised in Graham Greene’s description of Highsmith as a “poet of apprehension”, this will be one of the best things about it. The careful mapping of Tom’s every move, whether in furtherance of his deceit or the covering up of his crimes, allows the tension to mount exquisitely. That’s even before Inspector Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi) arrives to investigate the death of Freddie Miles (Eliot Sumner) – at which point you may have to take a breather and nip for a walk round the block. Doubts and shadows gather in corners. The details of massed lies accumulate, any one ready to be plucked out by an astute girlfriend, police officer or bank teller, bringing the teetering pile down. Malevolence bleeds into everything. Every moment of beauty ultimately ends up poisoned. It’s wonderful.

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More than a match – Maurizio Lombardi as Inspector Ravini. Photograph: Philippe Antonello/Netflix

At the heart of it all, and in virtually every scene, is Scott. He has said in interviews that he didn’t want to diagnose or define Ripley too closely, which could have been a recipe for either blandness and confusion. Instead, it makes him a wellspring of possibilities. There is something for everyone to relate to in him – a dark everyman figure. There is the natural envy of the fortunate. There is the curdling into rage and hatred when they do not appreciate it or when, like Freddie, they seem to take joy in excluding others from their world of comfort. Is Tom in love with Dickie – or just his way of life? Is assuming his friend’s identity better than being with him, or did extraneous circumstances just force him into it? Or are we attributing too much of our own humanity to a sociopath, who takes from others because it is as natural to him as breathing? Scott’s Tom is everything and nothing, and mesmeric either way.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, too. Flynn’s Dickie is not a mere spoilt brat; rather, he is a weak but still warmly likable man. We may hope that Tom gets away with everything, but not because his victim deserves his fate. Fanning’s Marge radiates intelligence of the specific kind that tells her not to move against Tom until she can be sure of winning. And Lombardi is compelling, going toe-to-toe with Scott in their many scenes together. You can’t take your eyes off either of them.

With those who find it initially slow, or the relentless monochrome beauty slightly exhausting or pretentious, I understand entirely. But stick with it; allow yourself to yield to both and let Ripley seduce you. There is magic at work here.

The Guardian