The Performances That Define Tom Ripley, Past and Present

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The Performances That Define Tom Ripley, Past and Present

In the world of Tom Ripley, things are never black and white. At least, they weren’t, until Netflix’s new series Ripley. Ever since Ripley first appeared in the pages of Patricia Highsmith’s iconic 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, his has been a story of moral ambiguity, of gray areas, of hidden alleyways shrouded in shadow. Clearly, this walking enigma struck a chord. Not only did Highsmith go on to write four subsequent novels about Ripley, but there have been numerous adaptations on stage and screen. The most notable of these, of course, came in 1999 from Academy Award winning director Anthony Minghella, whose film version of Highsmith’s first novel served as the breakout vehicle for such stars as Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwenyth Paltrow. In addition to Damon, the role has been taken on by such heavyweights as Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich, and now falls to Andrew Scott, whose recent work in Fleabag and 2023’s All Of Us Strangers has led to a well-deserved breakout. It isn’t difficult to see why such a coterie of performers would want to delve into the mind of Tom Ripley, a character as slippery as they come, both whatever you want him to be and yet nothing at all—a performance of a lifetime. 

So much of Ripley’s story, past and present, has been about performance, and that holds true with Ripley. When we first meet Tom, in 1960’s New York City, he is playing the part of the con-man, to decidedly mixed results. He is getting by, but barely; his dilapidated apartment and half-baked schemes a far cry from the life he longs to lead. When an opportunity presents itself in the form of shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf, he doesn’t hesitate, quickly becoming just what it is the old man needs from him: a lifeline to his estranged, globe-trotting, trust-fund sucking son Dickie (Johnny Flynn). And yet, when he arrives in the idyllic, Italian city of Atrani, he quickly changes his tune, dropping the ruse presented to him by Herbert and entering another, revealing the true nature of his mission to Dickie and endearing himself to his new friend. Of course, not even this is the whole truth. To Dickie, and his doting girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning), Tom is an accountant who Dickie might or might not have known at Princeton, not a con-man at the end of his rope with all his belongings shoved in a few suitcases. 

From there Dickie and Tom enter into a kind of courtship, bonding over Dickie’s love of the finer things in life. Here you can see, thanks to Scott’s wonderful subtleties, the seeds of a new kind of performance taking shape. Tom reveals almost nothing about himself that will undercut their growing friendship, instead grafting his own personality onto Dickie’s, becoming the friend and confidant that Dickie seemingly desires, playing the mirror. Of course, we soon get the moment when Ripley very much loses the cool that has defined him to that point. Despite all his work to ingratiate himself in his life, Dickie has clearly had enough of Tom’s needy presence. This is only further exasperated when he finds Tom in a rare moment of vulnerability. Believing himself to be alone, Tom is wearing Dickie’s clothes, in fact pretending to be Dickie, sauntering in front of the mirror and impersonating his speech patterns. This is an essential scene in every version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and so too here, an example of Ripley’s innate longing made plain in a performance that goes further than even he might have expected. 

 All this comes to a head on a boat in Rome, when Dickie levels with Tom that their friendship has officially run its course, a fact that Tom simply cannot allow for. It’s here where the work of Academy Award winner Steve Zallian as both director and writer of Ripley is best on display. Where the 1999 version imbued this moment—in which Tom viciously attacks Dickie and kills him with an oar—with all the dramatic gravitas one might expect from such a heel turn, Zallian chooses to let things play out in a kind of methodical detachment. Tom clearly snaps, but you wouldn’t know it from Scott’s deliberate, cold-blooded demeanor. Even as he mostly bumbles his way through a hasty cover-up, Tom never truly loses his cool. It is, in many ways, keeping with the series as a whole. Zallian’s choice to shoot in stark, beautiful black and white and go without all but the hint of a score removes the romanticism inherent in the picturesque Italian locale. 

There are two primary results of this approach. The first is that it puts the focus even more squarely on Scott’s performance as Tom. With few filmmaking flourishes and less of the snappy dialogue that defines The Talented Mr. Ripley, we are left with Scott’s stony stoicism, his darting eyes the only hint of the nefarious nature hiding under his unflinching visage. This leads to the more pressing matter: the why of it all. Where Minghella’s approach, and in many ways Damon’s performance, is so breakneck that the question only falls further from our mind as Ripley enters his second-act as a murderer, Zallian and Scott force us to luxuriate in the minutiae of Ripley’s psyche, the why becoming a central point of conflict. 

It’s here where we must discuss one of the primary readings of the Ripley story. As stated, so much of Ripley is about the person Tom Ripley is pretending to be. “Tom is whatever anyone needs,” says Dickie’s swaggering friend Freddie Miles as he begins to unravel Tom’s plot. After the murder, we see Tom essentially transform himself into Dickie, wearing his clothes, cashing his checks, and placing his picture over Dickie’s on his passport. He also begins to talk and move like Dickie, fully enacting the fantasy that Dickie happened upon before his murder. You can look at this performance as evidence of two things: envy and desire. Though Highsmith has denied it in the past, it is difficult to look at the story of Tom Ripley and ignore the queer-coding happening throughout. Though Tom’s sexuality is never made overt, both Dickie and Marge hint at it frequently, and Tom’s insistence early on that he “likes girls” plays as perhaps his most hollow performance of all. Whether he truly loves Dickie is up for debate, but there is clearly something Tom is attempting to subdue throughout their time together. His attempts later to become him, rather than be with him, may represent the closest thing Tom can imagine to a relationship even he cannot fathom. 

There’s a documentary that recently came to Apple TV+ about famed spy writer John le Carre titled The Pigeon Tunnel. In it, the lifelong spinner of yarns is examining the nature of truth and what happens if, when we remove the layers of artifice in our lives, we arrive not at truth, but nothing at all. I am reminded of this in the story of Tom Ripley. For his actions, he is clearly an anti-hero but, beyond that, we never really come closer to knowing the true nature of Tom Ripley. He is a cipher through and through, making it impossible to classify him as either genuinely evil, tragically misunderstood, or anywhere in between. If we remove the many layers that make up Tom Ripley, if we put a pause on the many cons he is running, if we finally call cut on the performances he plays, what then is left of the talented Mr. Ripley? The answer might not be black, white, or gray, but nothing at all. 

Sean Fennell is a culture writer from Philadelphia attempting to listen, watch, and read every single thing he can get his hands on.

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