The Assassination of Gianni Versace review: Penelope Cruz’s new show is more stunning than she is

Hindustan Times | ByRohan Naahar, New Delhi
Mar 22, 2018 04:08 PM IST

The Assassination of Gianni Versace review: Starring Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez and Darren Criss, the second season of American Crime Story is a disturbingly addictive portrait of a psychopath.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Cast - Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Penelope Cruz
Rating - 4/5

Penelope Cruz might not have the most screen time, but she’s perfectly cast as Donatella Versace.(FX)
Penelope Cruz might not have the most screen time, but she’s perfectly cast as Donatella Versace.(FX)

In 1990, the future Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Richard Linklater, directed Slacker, a film whose impact is still felt to this day, even if the actual number of people who’ve seen it remains as low as ever. It was his attempt to capture the free-flowing nature of campus life in his hometown, Austin – a small film made on a shoestring budget in which characters would meet other characters, and in that typical manner for which Linklater would later become known, talk about every topic under the bright Texan sun.

As an audience member, Linklater said that he had always wondered what happened to the supporting characters in movies – the shopkeepers and the cab drivers who’d briefly interrupt the protagonist’s larger story. Where did those people come from? What were their hopes and dreams? What did their lives amount to? It was with these questions in mind that Linklater made Slacker, a movie that has no protagonist, and abandons characters the moment new ones pop up, switching the direction in which the story – if there was a story at all – was headed and subverting everything you thought you knew about narrative storytelling.

You wouldn’t normally invoke an early ‘90s indie film about aimless kids while talking about The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the second season of the terribly entertaining American Crime Story true-crime anthology series – but as strange as it may sound, that’s the one movie that sprang to mind. And there are several reasons for this, reasons that go beyond the simple stylistic similarities Versace and Slacker share – the constant switching focus of the plot, the backwards narrative, the subversion of expectations.

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace. (FX)
Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace. (FX)

The first season, which was an addictive retelling of a modern American folktale – the trial of OJ Simpson – was a gloriously flamboyant piece of entertainment, capable of moments of startling insight in between scenes shot with swooping cameras and punctuated by bombastic speeches. There was a deliberate tone to the way in which creator Ryan Murphy tackled the story. It was only natural to expect more of the same in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which is based on a true-life incident arguably more scandalous than OJ’s trial.

It begins with the seemingly impromptu murder of the Gianni Versace outside his sprawling and characteristically tacky Miami mansion. We watch as the famed designer wakes up in a bedroom fit for a European aristocrat, as he dresses himself in immaculate clothing and ambles through the hallways of his home, like a lion surveying his kingdom. His hand grazes the ornate sculptures of naked men that he has stationed like guards outside a Roman chieftains’ quarters. He touches these trophies, both real and inanimate. Finally, his rests his hands on his partner, who stands silently by his side throughout the show’s nine episodes, like he owns him. He probably does.

Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin play lovers. (FX)
Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin play lovers. (FX)

After eating breakfast in his courtyard, tiled with the Versace logo, he ventures outside, into the real world, where the rest of us live - the people who idolise him and dream of wearing his clothes one day. And that is where he gets shot in the face by Andrew Cunanan. But The Assassination of Gianni Versace isn’t about the designer’s rise to fame and it isn’t about his secret life as a homosexual man. Nor is it about his rumoured battle with HIV and the faith he showed in his sister, Donatella, when he learnt that he didn’t have much time to live. It could easily have been about any one of these things and as fans of Season 1, we would’ve have hungrily accepted it, and probably enjoyed it, considering how undemanding we’ve become.

But then, if it were about these stories, which are admittedly intriguing, that would rob us of the opportunity of bringing up Slacker, wouldn’t it? Because it will only take Versace one episode to upend every expectation you might have -- every expectation I certainly had was discarded with the swiftness of last season’s fall/winter collection.

When Versace fell to his death in slow motion, outside the palace he’d built for himself, with Ricky Martin crying over his limp body, I fully expected to be transported to a flashback of the young Gianni, growing up in Italy with the driven yet under-confident Donatella. But that would have been too easy. Instead of profiling the fashion icon and peeling back the layers of secrecy with which he lived his life – quite like what Murphy and his team of excellent writers did in Season 1 – the show turns its focus on Cunanan, and traces his unsettling journey to the moment he pulled the trigger in front of Versace’s mansion.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (FX)
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (FX)

And as a portrait of a serial killer, The Assassination of Gianni Versace couldn’t have been more captivating. Remember, it has only been months since we saw Mindhunter, David Fincher’s brilliant Netflix show about the birth of serial killers, but while they’re both essentially about the same thing – understanding, or at least trying to understand the psyche of a mass murderer – they couldn’t have been more distinct. Both shows are, however, the products of very singular visions – and God knows Ryan Murphy is, for the lack of a better word, brighter in his world view. This time, though, he is slightly overshadowed by Tom Rob Smith, who has written every episode of the season. There is a tonal uniformity that this process brings to television, and we’ve seen it work several times in the recent past, most notably in True Detective.

And as terrific as the storytelling choices are in this show – we revisit Cunanan’s murders in reverse, meeting his future victims after we’ve already seen them being bludgeoned or hacked or shot – it’s the three main performances that elevate it. Edgar Ramirez (who plays Gianni Versace) and Penelope Cruz (a suitably dusky, pre-surgery Donatella) might not be as central to the proceedings as one might have initially anticipated, but they’re the pool of subtlety that is essential to the tornado that Murphy’s programmes sometimes have the tendency of becoming.

We’re going to see a lot more of Darren Criss. (FX)
We’re going to see a lot more of Darren Criss. (FX)

But this is Darren Criss’ show. As Andrew Cunanan, he is a petulant child in certain scenes – when he is demanding rich white men to become his sugar daddies and lashing out at his single mother, scarred by the man who broke them – and in others, he is a terrifying monster – incapable of decency, surviving only to destroy others. With this show, he has become a star.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace has more in common with the films of David Fincher than it has with its own predecessor, but isn’t it refreshing when a programme doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but comes up with not one, but several new versions?

Watch the trailer for The Assassination of Gianni Versace:

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres on the 16th of April on Star World at 9 PM

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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