True to the spirit of the film that inspired it, the limited series Dead Ringers captures much of what made David Cronenberg’s effort unnervingly memorable, while also forging its own rich and bloody path. Swapping out male twins for female ones, this take on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s book Twins finds series creator Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, The Wonder, select episodes of Succession and Normal People) mining a lot of bracing new subtext, terror, and dark humour from the material that wasn’t present before. Is it better than Cronenberg’s film? That’s up for debate, and it’s a close call, but as its own entity, Dead Ringers is a triumph.
Rachel Weisz gets to do double duty in this version as Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin OBGYNs working in a big city hospital. Already minor celebrities thanks to the novelty of having twins performing the same job at the same place, the Mantles dream of having a medical facility of their own, but each for different reasons. The resolutely professional, demure, and soft spoken Beverly wants to create a birthing centre where women can feel safe and comfortable. The forceful, often rude, and demanding Elliot (technically the older of the two) sees their own building as a chance to run her own genetic testing lab, where she can continue her controversial and highly illegal experiments designed to change the ways women age, conceive, and give birth. As they are trying to secure funding from a wealthy billionaire responsible for an opioid crisis (Jennifer Ehle) and the woman’s decidedly nicer partner (Emily Meade), lovesick Beverly starts falling in love with a famous actress named Genevieve (Britne Oldford). Unable to spark much of a conversation on her own, Beverly asks Elliot to pose as her to ask her out. Genevieve goes out with the real Beverly, and the two hit it off immediately thanks in part to their shared problems with conceiving a child on their own. This distresses and angers the jealous Elliot, who sees her sister’s new romance as a distraction from their goals, both professional and personal.
Although David Cronenberg isn’t credited by name in the Dead Ringers revival, his influence looms large over the series. Birch wastes little time getting into the goopy, gory body horror elements that made the film so memorable, and even includes a clever number of callbacks that are unforced rather than shoehorned into the material. It’s visually fashionable, yet ghoulish in appearance. Clothes that would look great with a pop of blood spatter on them abound, as does an overall sense of constant refinement and wealth. The world of the Mantle Twins looks as sterile as a hospital at every turn – modern brutalist architecture lit primarily by fluorescent lights that are sometimes cleverly hidden to up the antiseptic feel – but it also speaks to a level of money, privilege and dominance these characters move within. The most likeable and relatable character is a megastar actress, which says a lot about the nature of everyone else in Dead Ringers.
The overt sexuality of the previous Dead Ringers adaptation is back on full display in Birch’s take, but the emphasis this time out isn’t placed on the will men can place over the bodies of women. Instead, Birch’s version of the same concept revolves around the many ways that women are either directly involved in or complacent with the commodification of female bodies. Men are merely tools here, and women are where the money and cunning lie. Obviously the role of a woman as a mother is front and centre throughout Dead Ringers, but Birch also has a lot to say about queerness, embryology, birthing, menopause and the various cottage industries that have been built up around them and how the main characters are seeking to profit from all of it. The perspective shift from the male gaze to female makes Dead Ringers into a narratively richer endeavour than the film was. It is a concept reborn that still retains all the material’s detailed examinations of the various ways science can push too far in the pursuit of perfection. (Don’t know what biohacking or trepanning is? Don’t worry. You will after this.)
It’s less outwardly fantastical than the film was, for the most part, but the more elaborate, time shifting plot grows stronger over time. In a true sign of quality that most established and limited series struggle with, even the episodes that feel like they’re padding out the length and stalling for time still offer up plenty to watch and think about. Several episodes feature lengthy sit down meals, meetings, and cocktail sessions where the characters debate their lives, goals, and morals, but these sequences are always snappily written, well paced, and exceptionally acted. New wrinkles in the Dead Ringers plot – like getting to know the parents of the Mantle Twins, the presence of an enigmatic housekeeper (Poppy Liu), and the sisters’ attempts to raise funds – add a lot of well woven story threads.
Birch has chosen a dream team of directors to helm every episode of Dead Ringers, including Sean Durkin, Karena Evans, Lauren Wolkstein, and Karyn Kusama. While the film has an overall unified tone, each director has been given episodes that allow them to bring their own low-key sense of style and flair to their instalments. Dead Ringers is a slow burning series about people who only raise their voices when they absolutely have to, but it’s also bursting with personality.
And at the heart of it all is Weisz, who gives the Mantle Twins all she’s got, turning in a pair of outstanding, layered performances. While Elliot is the showier of the two roles, and Weisz revels in the chance to play a supercilious sociopath, her turn as the demure and kindly Beverly is just as memorable. Weisz keenly understands the need for the material to have a balance between craziness and humanity, and she approaches both sides of her leading roles with a surprising amount of empathy, even for the more villainous twin. Weisz gets some great support from Oldford as the object of Beverly’s affections and Ehle, who plays a character that’s openly more contemptible than Elliot in her aims and goals. One episode late in the series also boasts some notably outstanding work from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, as a journalist hired to do a puff piece on the sisters, and Michael McKean, playing nicely against his usual type as a creepy old money billionaire from the South.
Dead Ringers is unique in that – much like the film – it’s both visually creepy and also quite talky. Aesthetically and narratively, Birch’s series has a sort of balance that few dramas – and even fewer projects that skew more towards horror and science-fiction – tend to have these days. The concept is familiar thanks to Cronenberg, but the approach is refreshing and unique. It’s a wonderful adaptation that stands quite confidently on all four feet.
Dead Ringers premieres on Prime Video starting Friday, April 21, 2023.
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