The untalented Mx. Ripley

In a story of a fiendishly successful performance, Eliot Sumner proved an extremely unconvincing man

Artillery Row On Television

An actor is the most convincing of liars, inviting us to believe they really are the character they inhabit before us on screen or stage. Marlon Brando knew that actors must go as far as possible in this when he said, “Nobody ‘becomes’ a character. You can’t act unless you are who you are.”

And truly, nothing is worse than when you can see an actor acting. The best, and most beautiful, deception is when you cannot see anything but the life of the character before you and the actor simply ceases to exist.

The new eight-part Netflix drama series “Ripley”, based on the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr Ripley, pursues the overtly noir route, taking a lengthy, captivating, monochrome journey through 1960s Italy as it follows the constantly changing fortune of the lead character Tom Ripley. 

The brooding cinematography dominates, with abundant use of motifs like staircases and steps, shoes and knives, meticulously utilised under the skilful direction of Steven Zaillian. “Ripley” is nothing short of cinematically beautiful, wonderfully acted, almost flawless, but not quite.

Sumner’s acting is so poor it makes you uncomfortable

Throughout the series we are ushered above and below the ornate staircases and along walls which bring the architecture of numerous Italian cities vividly to life, whilst echoing the twists and turns faced by Ripley in his many reinventions of himself. The suspense does not ebb, the quest for a perfect shot does not diminish over hours of film. The theme of Caravaggio’s use of light for example, pinpointed spectacularly in the scene between Ripley and Inspector Ravini, is utterly gripping. There is blistering attention to detail in this production, and it is some of the finest cinematography ever seen in a tv drama. Nothing is spare or unnecessary. 

Except one thing; the pointless, and unfathomable genuflection to gender identity in the casting of Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles.  

It is jarring to the senses when watching anyone act badly, but Sumner’s acting is so poor it makes you uncomfortable. Brando would wince. When any actor took the role of Freddie Miles, made iconic by the blistering performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 1999 Minghella film, it was always going to be subject to heavy scrutiny and near impossible to gain positive comparison. In choosing Eliot Sumner everyone involved had to know that this would potentially be a ridiculed disaster-casting.

And if they did know, why did they allow an otherwise clever, cinematically brilliant work, to be spoiled, by this artistic experiment into social inclusion? Was it due to the blind zeitgeist pull of gender ideology, the entitled self-belief of a celebrity offspring, or sycophancy on the part of one or all three of the casting directors? If they could so perfectly select the array of divinely unique and even bizarre hotel receptionists, and the viper-like Inspector, how could they possibly fail to notice how truly, painfully lacking Sumner’s presence on screen is? 

When Sumner first rounds the corner onto the street where Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf are drinking at a café, the long shot of a comical, rather than enigmatic, swagger clangs with awkwardness. As Freddie/Sumner approaches, in a masculine suit, the voice, hands and face are all unmistakably female and the acting unmistakably amateur. Sumner is glaringly wooden, her lines delivered to the quality of a GCSE drama exam piece which might scrape a pass at best. 

Tom Ripley is a social chameleon, borrowing the identity of others for financial gain. The fact that he is convincing is why he gets as far as he does

If we compare the sickly malevolence of Hoffman’s Freddie Miles, and of course everyone will if they have seen the original, then the viewer cringes at how bad this performance is. It is unfair to ask us to believe that other characters believe this is a man. Art should champion excellence, not sacrifice beauty for the sake of political/ideological performativity combined with celebrity-pandering. The scene is thankfully brief and the plot progresses, the drama rescued by superb acting and exquisite cinematography.

The incongruence is not that Sumner is “non-binary”, for if the director had chosen to portray Miles as a gender non-conforming character, or even made the character female and perhaps a lesbian, it would have been a bold choice and with the right actor, possibly, successful, but to substitute a female character and refer to her as “he” and “this guy”, asking viewers who clearly read Sumner as female to believe she is male, is unfathomable and unnecessary. 

When Freddie reappears in Rome the viewer finds themselves awaiting his swift demise rather than dreading it. Sumner leans against the door frame as Tom Ripley answers but rather than instilling fear she seems contrived in her movements, obvious, unsettlingly overacting every line in her grandad’s overcoat. 

When Hoffman’s Freddie inhabited this scene, playing incongruent notes on the piano against Ripley’s commands, he was simply terrifying. Sumner tries to subdue the role, mostly with finger gestures such as pointing and covering her mouth, but somehow manages to overplay it at the same time. Every line delivered makes the viewer tense with how much effort is going into it and we should never think acting is hard. Hoffman in 1999, holds the energy of ten characters in his hands and only needs to unleash a fraction of what he commands. He is like a jockey on a champion racehorse which could never be beaten; he knows it and does not raise his whip, he lets his talent run. Sumner by contrast is stuck in the starting gate.

My sense is that “allowances have been made” for two reasons. Firstly, how do you replace Sting’s kid without a fuss amongst the celebs, where obsequious behaviour by their inferiors is expected? Secondly, how, in the current climate do you chuck a trans-identified lass off a set for being rubbish, without half of Hollywood crying “bigot!”? Before ‘Ripley’ Sumner had secured a small number of tiny acting roles but could in no way be regarded as a competent actor and the choice risks the triumphant casting of characters such Inspector Ravini, who is sublimely formidable in his deadpan delivery. 

The brooding, wicked malevolence of the character Freddie is replaced with something insipid. The problem, the failure to convince, is not only because Sumner is female, but because she is also not very good. Any director of such skill, deliberating over every facial expression, lingering on footwear or exhaled smoke, cannot fail to spot that this actor is without doubt, dreadful. 

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry was never believably a boy and that was intentional. That she would be found out and treated badly is part of the film’s intent and the audience are complicit, knowing, expecting. In Ripley we are supposed to believe that Sumner is male and we do not, not for a second. Can female characters play traditionally male roles, like Hamlet for example? Yes, but the audience would know and this would be acknowledged as an adapted original script. None of that has happened here. You simply have a female actor in a male role that we are expected to believe is an actual male. 

Some commentators have suggested that, at 47, Andrew Scott was too old for the role of Tom Ripley, but Scott is a skilful actor at the height of his career, who studied Drama at Trinity College Dublin and began acting when he was 17. We are asked by an actor in possession of all the tools of his craft, to believe he is eleven years younger, and art and talent can stretch to this, his age disappears into his performance. To believe an inexperienced female actor is male, is a very different and unreasonable demand. 

Tom Ripley is a social chameleon, borrowing the identity of others for financial gain. The fact that he is convincing is why he gets as far as he does. He is believable, if not likeable. Sumner in the role of Freddie Miles is neither. Risking ruining the superb acting, directing, cinematography and editing of a piece which should have been a dramatic triumph, all for the sake of ideology, is a sad indication of how even art is asked to accommodate the delusion ripping through society which tells us that sex does not matter. It matters. 

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