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The art of deception: How the 'Ripley' series uses artworks to inform and misdirect

The art of deception: How the Ripley series uses artworks to inform and misdirect
The art of deception: How the Ripley series uses artworks to inform and misdirect Copyright Netflix - Canva
Copyright Netflix - Canva
By David Mouriquand
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If you haven’t already indulged in a Netflix binge or a reasonably paced viewing of Netflix’s ‘Ripley’, feel free to put that at the top of your list. If you have, artworks play a crucial role in the series. Here’s how.

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I was nervous about Netflix’s new eight-part adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller, "The Talented Mr. Ripley".

The slippery bugger at the centre of the author’s five novels is an anti-hero for the ages, and several depictions of Tom Ripley have managed to do him justice - as well as mishandle his unique brand of cold-blooded yet charming sociopathy.

Plus, the highwater mark was elevated, as Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law was not only a lush evocation of a time and place, but an enveloping exploration of what lurks beneath surfaces. Despite the liberties it took with the original text, it was the definitive Ripley adaptation.

However, I needn’t have worried so much, as 'Ripley' is a triumph in many respects.

Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning writer of the screenplay for Schindler’s List and creator of 'The Night Of' has delivered a Hitchcockian take on the first novel in the Ripley canon (or, the "Ripliad"). Except his moody take might as well have been titled 'The Ruthless Mr. Ripley', as Andrew Scott gives the titular grifter his darkest iteration yet.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley
Andrew Scott as Tom RipleyNetflix

What Scott lacks in Damon’s relatability or performative charm he makes up for in menace, with his onyx marble eyes adding to the impression you’re watching a deliciously gothic and meaner reimagining of what Minghella achieved. It’s a portrait of a social-climbing sociopath turned murderer, one whose greatest draw is the way its exquisitely crafted aesthetic blankets the viewer in an 8-chaptered noir for the ages.

The chilling and crisp monochrome was a canny call in this respect, both a callback to Italian neorealism as well as a way of creating a Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro (more on that in a bit) which is steeped in reflective character meaning. Not to mention suspense. So major plaudits go to Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s former director of photography, who shows that while we’re inundated with countless new series every month, there’s no excuse for slap-dash visuals considering inflated budgets.

'Ripley'
'Ripley'Netflix

Through meticulous compositions, the series takes its time not only establish the locations – and in doing so formidably captures Italian beauty, which is no mean feat considering the sumptuous decor could have been wasted without colour – but lingers on details, which may or may not be thematically impregnated. They are stunning to behold.

Hands, statues, archways, staircases, cobblestones, plunges into the ocean... The show is transportive in its textures, and there were ominous frames which had my jaw on the floor.

'Ripley'
'Ripley'Netflix

The camerawork was also part of my slaw-jawed daze, with Dutch angles and brooding framing teasing out tension in outwardly beautiful places and objects. This was particularly noticeable during the two murder scenes, which boasted Zaillian’s confidence as a director, as the prolonged stretches of dialogue-free procedurals showing the physical and practical difficulties of corpse disposal are nothing short of mesmerising.

'Ripley'
'Ripley'Netflix

While I’ve clearly been won over by what Zaillian & Co. have achieved, I have my reservations on a few aspects of this new adaptation – namely parts of the casting and a few missed opportunities to elevate the drama to the same heights as its mood and photography. The main snag might be the casting.

Granted, the cast are older – Scott is 47 and Johnny Flynn (playing Dickie) is 41 – and therefore it’s conceivable that the lack of youthful verve and dalliances from Dickie can be explained away by the fact he’s already been there and done that. While the volatile rich playboy act feels lacking, it’s understandable that this Dickie is a more phlegmatic presence, someone who desperately tries to give his life meaning through passing fancies. Yet, there’s still something missing.

In the 1999 film, Marge says about Dickie: “The thing with Dickie... It's like the sun shines on you, and it's glorious. And then he forgets you and it's very, very cold. When you have his attention, you feel like you're the only person in the world, that's why everybody loves him so much.”

There’s very little of that in Flynn’s performance, and the magnetism void between Scott and Flynn makes you yearn for a chemistry that would give extra dimensions to their bond. And while this version’s Ripley is a cold-blooded ghoul whose psychopathy is already in full swing, some surface charm is deficient. Yes, he’s a crafty manipulator who takes what he wants in a slow-burn Eat Pray Love for lunatics – so, Eat Prey Slay then – but the lack of transformation the character undergoes can be frustrating.

The biggest disappointment is this version’s Freddie Miles, played by nonbinary actor Eliot Sumner. Dickie’s friend is supposed to be a smarmy bon vivant and was portrayed to perfection by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who made him an odious and flamboyant presence that represented a clear threat to Ripley’s plans. Here, Sumner manages suspicion but is too stiff to provoke any sense of charismatic, larger-than-life threat.

'Ripley'
'Ripley'Netflix

Still, for all these gripes, I find myself being able to dismiss some of them by eclipsing my fond memories of Minghella’s film and embracing the fact that 'Ripley' is a new take on Highsmith’s story – one which, laudably, is closer in tone to the source material.

One specific aspect that struck me is the role of painting and art in the show, and how this element contributes in no small way to mirroring the plot and internal character traits. This circles back to the evocative black-and-white I can’t get enough of – a chiaroscuro which is in line with the repeated references to Caravaggio.

Before I get to the master of dramatic lighting, here are a few other paintings that have their importance in Ripley’s character studies and themes of class, obsession and even queer desire.

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“Augustus John” - Sir William Orpen

Portion of “Augustus John” - Sir William Orpen
Portion of “Augustus John” - Sir William OrpenPublic Domain

One of the first paintings seen in Ripley is this 1900 portrait by Sir William Orpen, which Ripley observes in the window of antiques store in New York.

While it’s not up there in fame and monetary value as the Picasso we see hanging on Dickie’s wall in Italy, it shows Ripley’s draw towards art and wealth. It also foreshadows the coming friendship between him and Dickie, as the painter was a close friend to his subject.

Granted, this could have had more weight had the show honed in a little more on the obsessive nature of the friendship, but it does mirror how our favourite sociopath mimics Dickie’s mannerisms later on in the show, and how he studies his wealthy mark with a painter’s eye to better paint him (so to speak) in his image.

Dickie’s paintings

Dickie painting Tom
Dickie painting TomNetflix

From the sublime to the ridiculous, as Dickie is no painter. And that’s the point.

Dickie’s not much of anything – much in the same way that Marge is clearly no writer and the viewer is not given any indication that the louche Freddie is a talented playwright.

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We’re told that Dickie tried to write – something he’s given up in favour of painting, much like Jude Law’s portrayal saw the character move on from the saxophone to wanting to play the drums in a fling of a cigarette butt.

When we meet Dickie, he’s an aspiring painter, and his daubs range from childish lanscapes to the comic aping of Picasso’s geometrically-challenged faces.

These lords and ladies of leasure have no obvious talent, and Ripley hates them for it. This is reflected in the paintings in Dickie’s atelier, as he is nothing more than a trust-fund kid trying to find something he’s good at.

Again, though the use of paintings – as well as the scene when Ripley poses for his faux-bohemian new mate, in a sort of reversed mirroring of the Open / Augustus dynamic – we learn more about the chip on Ripley’s shoulder. Unlike the 1999 film, Ripley doesn’t desire Dickie, but wants his lifestyle. Like the novel and the first film adaptation, Plein Soleil, the character believes he deserves a life he was denied, and therefore denies Dickie the opportunity to waste it further – through painting or otherwise.

“The Guitar Player” - Pablo Picasso

Portion of “The Guitar Player” - Pablo Picasso
Portion of “The Guitar Player” - Pablo PicassoPublic Domain

This 1910 painting calls out to Ripley when he first enters Dickie’s Italian villa.

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As previously observed with the Orpen portrait, this is less about the art itself and everything to do with the opportunity it represents. It’s not only a symbol of luxury that Ripley couldn’t dream of affording, but also something which can be exploited. It’s the visual representation of the opportunity that has fallen into his lap – an opportunity that is within his reach, as the Picasso isn’t behind glass. It just hangs there, ready to be taken.

“The Guitar Player” is part of Picasso’s analytic Cubism period, one characterised by objects being deconstructed into geometric shapes. Here, the monochromatic colour scheme deftly reflects the monochrome of the show itself, but the choice of painting is no accident. It had to be Cubism – a way of emphasising that Ripley isn’t tethered to a reality imposed upon him and, like the masters of Cubism, he reshapes things to create his own world.

When we discover that Ripley sent himself the oil painting, using his new pseudonym Timothy Fanshaw, the canvas becomes less a symbol and more of a narrative linchpin. It’s Ripley’s insurance policy. Should plans materialise according to his schemes or should they be thwarted, the Picasso is his.

The importance of the recurring Carravaggio

'Ripley'
'Ripley'Netflix

Now comes the central figure and paintings, those by 17th century Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The artworks, which show Caravaggio’s ability to realistically depict violent scenes (much like the director of 'Ripley'), feature throughout the series.

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Caravaggio was an artist but was also a fiend and a murder. Remind you of anyone?

While – to my knowledge - Patricia Highsmith never referred to Caravaggio's works, Zaillian employs the Baroque artworks to reveal psyches and draw comparisons. In the final episode, we even have scenes from the painter’s life. We see the body of Ranuccio Tommasoni, who was murdered in Rome in 1606 by the painter, who then fled the scene. Again, parallels much?

Aside from the fact that Ripley thinks, like Caravaggio, that he is superior and therefore can get away with murder, there’s also Caravaggio’s attraction to men, as he was rumored to have had relationships with both men and women. Again, something which mirrors Ripley’s (bi?)sexuality.

Beyond these parallels, the curated selection of paintings takes viewers on a precise journey.

"The Seven Works of Mercy" by Caravaggio
"The Seven Works of Mercy" by CaravaggioPD

The first Ripley sees is “The Seven Works of Mercy”, a 1607 painting that has the opposite effect on our protagonist compared to the Picasso. Dickie takes Ripley to Naples to view the painting, explaining that it was painted after Caravaggio murdered Tommasoni. 

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Once more, the chiaroscuro metatextually mirrors Robert Elswit’s precise use of shadows in the black-and-white palette and theme of the duality of man's nature. The painting also highlights how Caravaggio manipulated light and shadows, much like Ripley is manipulating those that surround him, weaving his web of lies. 

As for the painting itself, it shows acts of kindness – something Ripley is not capable of – and the faces are of alarm and distorted with panic, mimicking the upcoming turmoil our antagonist hero is about to inflict upon his unsuspecting marks. In this respect, it’s a presage of sorts – a peek into Ripley’s future through the painter’s past.

The following canvas is “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1600), which depicts Matthews calling by Jesus. Ripley sees it in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi di Francesci. He pays little attention to the other two paintings which tell the story of Matthew, including “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”, but chooses to focus on the summoning. This is not accident, as Ripley is on a journey – one where the possible disastrous consequences are ignored in favour of what he perceives as a righteous calling. By his standards, of course.

“David With the Head of Goliath”
“David With the Head of Goliath”PD

“David With the Head of Goliath” (1610) is a more obvious choice, as it directly relates to death. 

In the museum where Ripley admires the painting, he overhears a tour guide explain to visitors that Caravaggio painted himself as both David and Goliath in different stages of his life. Reflecting once more the duality of man – both victor and defeated – the guide also mentions the expression on David’s face, which is one of sadness in victory. This is a link to Ripley, as he does not feel sadness or pity for his victims, but instead takes what he wants. David, however, is an interesting parallel to the fact that Ripley, as we see during the show that he is not a trained killer. He deals in self-preservation and opportunism, but doesn’t seamlessly map out his murders – he acts, and deals with the consequences, as seen in the boat scene where he gets thrown off the barque, as well as the bloody staircase dragging of Freddie. Again, much like the lack of attention he pays to “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”, Ripley does not analyse the possible consequences – his talent lies in dealing with the outcomes and managing to serpent his way out of danger.

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“David With the Head of Goliath” is also a reflection on the inevitability of death but also fate – something which, ironically or presciently, came to pass in Caravaggio’s life. As previously mentioned, the painter was a murderer himself, and was killed for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. To the spectator, this painting is a narrative tease, a way of suggesting that Ripley may have to one day face the consequences of his crimes. However, Ripley doesn’t appreciate this; he may identify with aspects of Caravaggio’s life that Dickie shared with him, but he does not foresee his possible downfall – like a true sociopath. Who, incidentally, kills both his victims by bashing their heads in.

Coincidence? Non credo.

The next Caravaggio painting is “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence” (1609), which Ripley observes in Palermo. It’s another biblical scene which symbolises rebirth, much like Ripley’s multiple rebirths when he assumes the identities of Dickie and Richard Fanshaw.

“The Crucifixion of St. Peter”
“The Crucifixion of St. Peter”PD

Then comes “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” (1601), which further emphasises that the Caravaggio paintings also represent the narrative evolution of the main character, in the form of unofficial chapters. The painting is present in the final episode, a sort of cheekily placed dark omen, as the promise of death could be foreshadowing a grizzly end for Ripley. At the very least, it adds an extra form of tension.

The eighth episode also starts in an unexpected way - a flashback to the 17th century which sees Caravaggio drinking wine after the death of Tomassoni. This is a direct comparison to Ripley’s actions after he bludgeoned Freddie, and effortlessly offers up that Ripley has almost become the murderous artist he admires – his final identity alongside Richard Fanshaw?

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“Madonna and Child with St. Anne”
“Madonna and Child with St. Anne”PD

The final canvas (and congrats for getting this far) is “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” (1605). Like “The Crucifixion of St. Peter”, it is seen in the final episode. 

The painting depicts the struggle between good and evil, as the Virgin Mary holds Jesus as he steps on a snake, representing a triumph over evil. This is a sly and tension-creating ploy to induce some tension, as well as tease the possibility of Ripley’s fall. 

No such thing, as Ripley – the serpent – once again dodges any consequences, showing that there is a reversal to what the paintings used to guide us towards: evil can emerge victorious.

Ripley victorious (in Venice)
Ripley victorious (in Venice)Netflix

Ultimately, the fascination with Caravaggio not only makes sense for Ripley because he is a violent man who venerates another man prone to violence, but also because it allows Zaillian to at times – especially in the final episode - misdirect the audience in the same way Ripley manipulates his surroundings. 

All the strategically placed works of art paint the portrait of a devious bastard who may not paint masterpieces, but whose own showpieces are deception and murder.

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And like Caravaggio’s paintings seem to suggest, if Ripley keeps walking the same path as his painter counterpart, he may meet a similarly nasty end. 

We’ll only find out if there’s a season 2...

All 8 episodes of 'Ripley' are available to stream on Netflix.

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