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‘Unfurling tension and menace’: how slow TV like Ripley makes for a truly gripping watch
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‘Unfurling tension and menace’: how slow TV like Ripley makes for a truly gripping watch

The reviews for Netflix’s elegant new Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Ripley, have been mixed. While some critics have adored its moody black-and-white posturing and even labelled it a work of art, others have been less impressed. Is Andrew Scott a bit too old to be Tom Ripley, who is 25 in the first novel of the series? Does it compare unfavourably with the peerless Anthony Minghella version from 1999, or to 1960’s Plein Soleil, in which Alain Delon played the scheming sociopath? At eight episodes, with some pushing over the hour mark, is it stretching a relatively short novel beyond its limits?

These are all questions of taste, of course, but it is hard to deny that Ripley is slow. It takes its time, it builds its case, and it luxuriates in the beauty and/or grubbiness of its surroundings. There are lingering shots of staircases – so many staircases – and statues, skies and scenery. This is a highly aestheticised world, and the noir-ish palette works surprisingly well, considering that much of its early action is set on the Amalfi Coast. You might think that such sun-kissed luxury would disappear in monochrome, but it only makes it all the more eerie, and the sinister threat all the more pronounced.

This confidence extends to its pacing. In music right now, songs tend to be written with streaming in mind. The hooks come earlier and earlier, and something as audacious as a long instrumental intro, which might dare to put off a casual listener who is flicking through a playlist, would be considered a relic of a different time. Television hasn’t quite got there yet, but in the age of the algorithm, you can see the beginnings of it already. Series are top-loaded with twists and grabby openers. There is so much TV to watch, and it is all competing to be seen, so new series are rarely afforded the privilege of being allowed to stretch out, catlike, and lead the audience with a gentle hand rather than a firm shove.

Johnny Flynn, Andrew Scott, and Dakota Fanning star – or, in some eyes, bore – in Ripley.View image in fullscreen

Ripley has the privilege of being both a known story – the source novels remain hugely popular, decades after their publication – and, in Andrew Scott, having a big-name draw. I would guess that both of these elements have afforded director Steven Zaillian (The Night Of) a bit of wriggle room. To me, the steadiness of Ripley is a strength rather than a flaw. The Talented Mr Ripley is a particular sort of thriller, and Highsmith’s writing hinges on a particular kind of suspense. Her novels are not the kind of stories that thrive on shocking twists and turns, but rather an unfurling of tension and menace.

This can make them difficult to adapt – see the flat Ben Affleck film version of Deep Water, from 2022 – but it does mean that the discomfort you might get from watching the violent unravelling of a marriage, for example, or a conman on the run executing ever bigger and more murderous scams, is palpable. The series understands this. I wouldn’t call its pace relaxed, exactly, but it certainly doesn’t hurry. And by the time it has reeled you in to Ripley’s mindset, and the “action” does arrive, it is already far too late to run away from it.

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Source: theguardian.com