Why make a 1988 David Cronenberg film into a six-episode-long miniseries?
That was my main question — and concern — about Prime Video’s Dead Ringers, a series based on the Cronenberg film of the same name, itself adapted from the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. In Cronenberg’s movie, Jeremy Irons plays the double role of twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle. In the miniseries, created by Alice Birch (The Wonder, Normal People), those roles go to Rachel Weisz.
In a lesser TV show, the gender-swapping of the Mantles could risk being a gimmick. Not so in Birch’s hands. She and her team of writers — all women — have refashioned the original Dead Ringers story into a deep look at pregnancy and fertility, and two women who have devoted their lives to it to the point of obsession.
Rachel Weisz plays twin doctors in first look at ‘Dead Ringers’
The result is equal parts fascinating and perturbing, thanks in no small part to Weisz’s brilliant turn(s) as Beverly and Elliot.
How does Dead Ringers differ from Cronenberg’s film?
Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers.’
Credit: Niko Tavernise/Prime Video
Thankfully, Dead Ringers does not attempt to stretch the plot of Cronenberg’s movie over six hours. Yes, both pieces of media are about twin doctors who share everything, from their practice to their lovers. And yes, both involve the rift that comes up between them when Beverly begins seeing actress Genevieve (Britne Oldford) independently of Elliot. But aside from that — and the occasional reference to the film — Dead Ringers does its own thing.
The meat of the show focuses on Beverly and Elliot’s attempts to open a birthing center and lab. Beverly, the more reserved of the twins, hopes to “change the way women birth, forever.” Elliot, her outgoing other half, prefers to conduct research that will push the possibilities for women’s healthcare — and the boundaries of medical ethics. Their hopes for the future lie with investor Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle, deliciously stone-cold), part of a Sackler-like family who wants to ensure the birthing center churns out as much profit as possible.
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Cronenberg’s Mantles make their living by examining vaginas, fallopian tubes, and everything in between. However, as neither possesses those parts themselves, there is a constant remove between them and their patients — a remove that is purposeful and necessary to the film. On the other hand, Birch’s Mantles have the same organs as their patients, rendering all their interactions more personal and occasionally, more horrific.
Again, the closeness is purposeful and unique to the miniseries, differentiating both versions of Dead Ringers without having one take away from the other.
Dead Ringers offers a unique take on body horror.
Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers’, again.
Credit: Niko Tavernise/Prime Video
From the grotesque metamorphosis of The Fly to Videodrome‘s torso VHS tape player, Cronenberg is a master of his subgenre. The body horror of his Dead Ringers may not be as prevalent as in his other films, but images like a fleshy mass conjoining the Mantles or sinister tools meant to be used on “mutant women” are certainly nausea-inducing.
Birch’s Dead Ringers is full of body horror, but her frights are more grounded in realism. Expect graphic birthing scenes, including C-sections shown in excruciating detail. Scalpels, forceps, and copious amounts of blood reign supreme, along with the worry that everything could go wrong at any given moment.
This Dead Ringers finds horror in its bloodless moments too. In the show’s first episode, we watch Beverly pressing on a surrogate mother’s abdomen in order to turn the baby around in the uterus. The surface of her belly ripples and swells with the movement of the child, but what is truly unnerving is the impersonal relationship between the non-pregnant donor, her surrogate, and the Mantles. Even as Beverly attempts to explain what she’s doing, the donor speaks over her body as if the surrogate isn’t there, as if she is simply a vessel, not a person.
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Dead Ringers reveals how real practices in obstetrics and fertility medicine can make the process of giving birth feel horrifyingly foreign. Beverly, especially, wants to change that with the birthing center. But in a world where pregnancy spells profit for people like Rebecca Parker, how can the Mantles truly make an impact? Perhaps they can’t. Later scenes show the twins performing operations on pregnant women for a crowd of onlooking investors. Only their bellies are on display, making for a dehumanizing sight.
Dehumanization has played a horrifying role in gynecology since James Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” began his work in the field. Sims experimented on enslaved Black women without using any anesthesia(opens in a new tab), a fact Dead Ringers does not shy away from in its unsettling fifth episode. The references to Sims render every hospital sequence horrifying, as we are reminded that the Mantles’ whole practice, which primarily benefits wealthy white women able to afford their care, can be traced back to the abuse of enslaved Black bodies. Dead Ringers‘ ideas can occasionally be jumbled, but its horror lens allows them to come through loud and clear.
Rachel Weisz is a powerhouse in Dead Ringers.
Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers,’ once (or twice) more.
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
Weisz’s performances as Beverly and Elliot are both knockouts. As Elliot, she is laugh-out-loud funny with a tinge of menace, while her Beverly is riddled with anxiety and insecurities. They’re two sides of the same coin, and two halves of one incredible showcase for Weisz. She makes a stellar scene partner for herself, with the twins’ sharp dialogue flying so quickly and naturally it’s impossible not to commend Weisz and Dead Ringers‘ editing team for such seamless twinning.
Since Dead Ringers is a character study of the Mantles in particular, the show’s other characters can sometimes feel like afterthoughts. There’s the enigmatic Greta (Poppy Liu) who takes care of the Mantles’ apartment but whose own secrets lack sufficient payoffs. Likewise, Beverly’s partner Genevieve sometimes feels more like an object for the twins to squabble over than her own person. This is no fault of Liu or Oldford’s, but rather of a story that is so focused on the Mantles that anyone in their orbit becomes smaller by comparison. I don’t blame Dead Ringers for highlighting the Mantles — that was also the appeal of Cronenberg’s film — but when faced with a six-hour-long series, any bloated or underdone storylines become much clearer.
Perhaps that’s why shorter guest appearances stand out more. As an unlikely friend to Elliot, Susan Blommaert’s Agnes forces her to reckon with the twin experience. (Is having a twin double a life? Or is it half of one?) Michael McKean delivers a chilling performance as an Alabama doctor, and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine nicely throws a wrench in the twins’ dynamic as a journalist profiling them. Then there’s Brittany Bradford, who only appears in one scene but who is responsible for one of the most haunting, riveting television monologues of the year so far.
But Dead Ringers remains steadfastly Weisz’s show — and with good reason. The Mantles are a force to be reckoned with. “Mesmeric,” one character terms them, and it’s hard to disagree. The same could be said of Weisz’s performance, and of Dead Ringers itself. Between its originality as an adaptation, its lead performance, and its blood-streaked body horror, Dead Ringers will mesmerize you from the get-go.
All episodes of Dead Ringers are now streaming on Prime Video.(opens in a new tab)