DEAD RINGERS Review: Sister, Sister
Rachel Weisz and writer Alice Birch reimagine the David Cronenberg classic to very bloody, very twisted, and very successful effect.
How dare you! Oh, I see.
All six episodes of the limited series premiere globally April 21 on Prime Video. I've seen all six episodes.
Look beyond Hollywood's recent mania for gender-flipping "product" into so-so streaming "product" whose novelty quickly wanes, because producer Rachel Weisz and writer Alice Birch have entirely refashioned David Cronenberg's "masterpiece of understated strangeness," as my colleague J Hurtado described the 1988 release when it was heading to Blu-ray in 2016.
The first scene in the first episode quickly establishes minutes-older Elliot (Rachel Weisz) as outspoken, brash and highly confident. Her minutes-younger identical twin sister Beverly (Rachel Weisz) is quieter, more reserved, and less confident. Further clues as to their separate identities are communicated in their different hairstyles, reflecting their personalities.
They are both medical doctors in their own New York City practice, with Elliot leading a research team in the lab and Beverly principally treating patients in the office. They share an aspiration to create a birthing center that could be revolutionary. Their personalities differ markedly, but they've always done everything together; they are codependent to the nth degree.
Another difference between them is that older sister Elliot has become dependent on drugs and drinking, with no apparent interest in any sort of emotional attachment to anyone, other than her sister. In contrast, baby sister Beverly has stated her desire to have a child, though she has suffered one miscarriage after another.
One night, famous actress Genevieve -- her name perhaps a tip to Genevieve Bujold, who essayed a similar role in Cronenberg's film -- enters their lives, and Beverly soon falls for her. Britne Oldford, who, like Bujold, is also from Canada, persuasively portrays the love interest, who becomes a more consequential character as the series develops.
As the twins' personalities are revealed, their birthing center attracts the attention of potential investors Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle) and her sister Susan Parker (Emily Meade), who are not identical twins but billionaires with similar malignant streaks, manifested during a dinner/pitch meeting that is scorching and scintillating, the sort of conversation that can properly be described as hair-raising for the electricity it creates.
Creator Alice Birch wrote the first and (concluding) sixth episodes, and oversaw the all-female writers' room, to which Rachel Weisz contributed, per Birch's production notes. Ming Peiffer, Rachel De-Lahey, Miriam Battye and Susan Soon He Stanton wrote episodes two through five, respectively, which are similarly filled with sharp, stinging dialogue and are marked by an accumulation of deepening characterizations for the principals (Elliot, Beverly, and Genevieve), as well as a fuller portrait of supporting characters introduced along the way, especially research doctor Tom Crabgrass (Michael Chernus) and personal assistant Greta (Poppy Liu), who are shown to be complex people with complex motivations, expertly performed by the actors.
Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) directed the first two episodes, and also co-directed the sixth episode with Lauren Wokestein, who helmed the fourth episode solo. Together with directors Karena Evans (episode three) and the great Karyn Kusama (episode five), they create a world in which elaborate dinner scenes are the fulcrum of the narrative. Anytime a character eats in this series, it's cause for worry and anxiety.
Rachel Weisz creates two characters who are distinctly individual people through her body language and facial expressions, her manner of speech ever so slightly different, like her varying hairstyles, reflecting each sister's personality. The visual effects team and the excellent editors masterfully enhance the performances in an organic manner, so that it all flows beautifully and naturally.
The latter point takes nothing away from Weisz's absolutely spellbinding, dueling performances, nor from the absolutely crack writing, led by Alice Birch. Because the series revolves around the characters, her creative ability to create personalities for the sisters, a talent that she's demonstrated time and again on the stage and on screen (Lady Macbeth, Normal People), melds perfectly with the genre elements, which are bracing for the sheer bloody violence that is wreaked upon human bodies by the entire birthing process, explicitly recreated in excruciating, bloody, flesh-opening details, that are quite bloody.
(I hope I've made it clear: those scenes, of which there are quite a few, are not for the squeamish.)
The series becomes more deranged and provocative as it goes. Each episode is well-conceived and executed, and an essential stepping-stone in the expanded narrative path that is followed. To say that Dead Ringers is codependent with body horror to the nth degree is only the starting point. It's a gut-wrenching binge-watch.
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- Rachel Weisz
- Emily Meade
- Jennean Farmer