Ripley | One of the most beautiful-looking TV shows in years

ripley andrew scott
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Steven Zaillian’s Ripley is a tense, absorbing thriller series – and its black and white visuals make it one of the best-looking TV shows ever.

There’s been a trend in recent years of releasing popular films in special monochrome editions – Mad Max: Fury Road, Parasite and Justice League all spring to mind. They have their fans and they’re often interesting to watch, but there’s something a bit odd, at least for this writer, about the whole process.

When 20th century directors made films in black and white, their whole approach to lighting and composing a scene was typically different, and for good reason: we interpret colour images differently from black and white ones. Without colour to attract the eye, we focus more on texture and contrasts between light and dark. In other words, a film like Fritz Lang’s M or Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull base their entire aesthetic around the properties of black and white film; they aren’t colour films that have been tweaked after the fact.

All of which brings us onto Ripley, Steven Zaillian’s flat-out gorgeous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley. Everything in it, from its costumes to its hairstyles to its lighting, is designed to make the most of its black and white photography. It is, quite possibly, one of the most striking looking and beautiful television shows of the past few years.

From Ripley’s Rome-set prologue, in which its title con artist Tom Ripley is shown in the middle of a criminal exploit that will become clearer later in the series, we’re given a grounding in the style and tone Zaillian and his collaborators are going for. There are the extreme angles of lift shafts and staircases; noirish shadows and incisive closeups.

Read more: Ripley review | Episodes 1-4

The scene also unfolds from the perspective of a judgemental-looking cat – an early taste of the series’ wry humour, and also an example of a recurring motif: just about everything Tom Ripley does is observed by someone or something.

Andrew Scott is the latest actor to play Tom Ripley, and it’s a fascinating take on a character we’ve seen played on the large or small screen by the likes of Matt Damon and John Malkovich. Scott’s Ripley is a shifty, eerie figure – handsome and well-kept, yet with a distinct miasma of darkness surrounding him. With his jet-black hair and similarly benighted clothes, Ripley is like a walking black hole – the dark focal point for whichever scene he’s in, and strikingly opposite from the polished marble and sun-bleached skies he’s set against.

The camera loves him, frankly, and some of the film’s most captivating moments of suspense come from the way Scott reacts – or rather, doesn’t react – to events unfolding. In a subtly astonishing interplay between performer and filmmaker, Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswitt allow the series’ most tense scenes to unfold in long takes where everything hinges on the slightest body movement or shift in expression. Ripley sitting in his Rome apartment watching a too-smart-for-his-own-good nemesis poking around his belongings. Ripley responding to a barbed comment with a forced smile or an unblinking glare (seriously, you could probably count the number of times Andrew Scott blinks in any given episode on one hand).

In this regard, Ripley is old-fashioned in the best possible sense. It’s a series set in the late 1950s and early 60s that actually feels as though it was made by the better filmmakers of that era, back when filming schedules were longer and the expense of shooting and editing meant that every angle and cut felt precise and considered.

Nor does Ripley’s black and white look feel like a calculated attempt to make a made-for-streaming TV series feel more highbrow or arthouse. In a recent interview, Steven Zaillian rather modestly said he shot Ripley in monochrome because he wanted to avoid making Italy’s blue skies look too pretty.

ripley cast
Credit: Netflix

Read more: Ripley review | Episodes 5-8

It’s arguable, though, that Ripley’s black and white visuals go beyond the avoidance of a postcard look, and are fundamental to the show’s storytelling. The lack of colour focuses our attention onto finer details – whether it’s the coldly probing expression of an Italian detective (Maurizio Lombardi, whose deadpan performance is simultaneously charismatic and extremely funny) or just how well a photograph is stuck down on a newly-faked passport. It’s a visual reflection of Zaillian himself, whose appetite for precise details is such that he devotes almost an entire hour-long episode to showing exactly how Ripley goes about covering up one of his nastier exploits.

Netflix is often – quite rightly – criticised for the look of some of its films and shows. Its attempts at making multiplex-style action thrillers that people can watch at home – things like Red Notice and Lift and The Grey Man – often have all the drawbacks of a weaker Fast & Furious entry without any of the positives. But the streaming giant also throws vast sums of other people’s money at ‘prestige’ work from major filmmakers, and several of these have been in black and white – David Fincher’s Mank, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde and Bradley Cooper’s Maestro all spring to mind.

Curiously, all three of those above-mentioned films have been quite badly flawed in some way, at least in this writer’s opinion; certainly, the black and white element in each seemed to exist in order to make them look somehow ‘classic’. Ripley’s visuals, on the other hand, feel like a logical extension of its story and themes. It’s a noir thriller that looks at times like it could have been shot by Jacques Tourneur or Billy Wilder; it’s a character study about a criminal who owes his existence (and success at his chosen profession) to his ability to notice and exploit tiny details. But in Zaillian and Andrew Scott’s hands, Ripley also becomes something else: an almost supernatural figure. A kind of maelstrom that twists and destroys everything in its orbit.

Netflix has spawned a lot of iffy output over the years; that it can occasionally bankroll something as brilliant and beautiful-looking as Ripley makes its existence entirely worthwhile.

Ripley is streaming now on Netflix.

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