Ripley and the Art of Disguise

In Netflix’s new series Ripley, a succession of artworks provides clues into the dark psyche of Tom Ripley, menacingly portrayed by Andrew Scott.

It’s a tall task: a remake of the 1999 cult classic The Talented Mr Ripley, which is itself an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Yet the new Netflix series Ripley, directed by Steven Zaillian, takes an intriguing new approach to the twisted character of Tom Ripley.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it follows protagonist Tom Ripley (played by Andrew Scott), an unsettling grifter who’s hired by a wealthy shipping mogul to bring his son, Dickie (played by Johnny Flynn), back to New York from a small coastal Italian town. Instead, Tom embeds himself into Dickie’s life, leading to a series of events resulting in forgery, identity theft and murder. While the series remains mostly faithful to the book, Zaillian uses artworks to reveal new depths of Ripley’s dark psyche.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in Ripley.

Most immediately striking to viewers is the choice to strip the series of all color. By shooting in black and white, Zaillian plunges the audience into a suspenseful, film noir atmosphere. A stark contrast to the joyful, sun-drenched blues and yellows of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film, the black and white shots denote a colder, more sinister mood from the outset.

Within this new, monochromatic Ripley world, a second, more subtle storyline emerges, in which Tom is not only obsessed with Dickie and his wealth, but also the art Dickie introduces him to. What initially seems like Tom’s attempt at fostering a deeper connection with Dickie through art leads to the introduction of a third, omnipresent character.

Meet Caravaggio, a 17th Century painter known for his unsettling ability to depict intense and often violent scenes with sickening realism. Viewers are first introduced to Caravaggio as Dickie takes Tom to Naples to view The Seven Acts of Mercy. After viewing the painting, Dickie explains that it was created the year after Caravaggio murdered someone in Rome, foreshadowing the parallels between Tom’s future and Caravaggio’s past.

As the series progresses, Tom takes inspiration from Caravaggio, travelling to Rome and Sicily, places Caravaggio spent time in exile creating some of his most famous paintings. In something of a pilgrimage, Tom moves through Rome to stand before Matthew and the Angel, The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, where a priest remarks on the use of light that Caravaggio has become renowned for. What seems to be a throwaway comment soon proves prophetic, as Tom is inspired by Caravaggio’s use of light to disguise his identity during a police interrogation.

David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio (1610).

In Rome, Tom stands before Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, and viewers are again made aware of the subtle links between the artist and the admirer. Tom overhears a museum guide explaining that Caravaggio portrayed David not as a cold-blooded killer but as compassionate or even loving, evident in his gaze toward the severed head of Goliath. The narrative of David taking down a giant through his tactical wit could be a nod to Ripley’s own self-image, swindling the upper echelons of New York society through his intellect. In a later episode’s murderous climax, Tom goes as far as to mimic the actions of Caravaggio’s David.

Caravaggio isn’t the only painter used to reveal the intriguing psyche of Ripley. Enter Picasso. First shown to viewers on the wall of Dickie’s living room in episode one, Picasso’s The Guitarist emerges again in the series’ final scenes, as it’s unpacked by Ripley who has secured his newest identity. By using this particular Picasso painting, which was created during the artist’s Analytic Cubism phase, Zaillian is perhaps alluding to Tom Ripley’s fragmented identity. Picasso’s depiction of a guitarist uses shapes and lines to draw viewers into the intricate make-up of a person, rather than the larger whole. Zaillian has achieved something similar in the eight episode fragmentation of Tom Ripley’s identity. Throughout the series, artworks give viewers a greater understanding of who Ripley is and who he will become next.

All episodes of Ripley are now available to stream on Netflix. 

Nadia Tereszkiewicz, la Nouvelle Étoile du Cinéma Français

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