Canneseries Review: Dead Ringers, A Stylish, Timely Update of a Body Horror Classic
Both profoundly disturbing and deeply hilarious, the series — which sees Rachel Weisz playing twins — proves she’s in a league all her own.
Like the David Cronenberg film upon which it’s based, the show’s biggest strength is its stylish sense of dread. “Dead Ringers” doesn’t waste any time getting into the meat of things, so I’m not going to either: This series is one of the most unhinged things I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in the best possible way. There is talk of “cutting babies from women’s wombs,” more than a few f-bombs and c-words, and graphic sexual content including discussions of twincest — and that’s just in the first two minutes. “Dead Ringers” is a rollercoaster ride of a series from the first frame to the last, and no matter how securely you strap in or how tightly you hold on, odds are you’re still going to get a little nauseous. But trust me — the exhilaration is so, so worth it.
It’s hard to compare Dead Ringers to any other piece of media. There’s the obvious, of course — the 1988 David Cronenberg movie on which it’s based — but given the protagonist twins are now women, the tone feels so original, so bold it’s difficult to even describe. One of last year's most impactful and disturbing scenes came in the form of “Fleishman Is in Trouble”, where Rachel (Claire Danes) is violated by her doctor when giving birth. It’s a scene my brain couldn’t help but conjure when watching “Dead Ringers”, as it tackles the dark and horrific side of obstetrics. this unique brand of horror. Instead of approaching it like numerous other medical shows on TV — “Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Good Doctor”, for instance — “Dead Ringers” offers a much darker, more twisted take. The medical ethics of “Crimes of the Future”, another Cronenberg feature, come to mind, and the sleek, terrifying look into the lives of the ultra-wealthy combined with dry, biting humour can often emit “Succession” vibes — unsurprising given that showrunner Alice Birch worked on the HBO show in Season 2.
Birch is truly one of the most exciting names in the industry right now, having been involved in Sally Rooney series adaptations “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends”, as well as penning the Florence Pugh-led “Lady Macbeth” and “The Wonder”. However, she got her start in theatre, earning a bevy of accolades for “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” and “Anatomy of a Suicide”, all of which are evident in the way “Dead Ringers” is structured and paced. There is a hearty helping of deliciously long, intricate dinner scenes with dozens of actors and moving parts, almost unfolding like a stage play at times. She’s masterful at crafting grand displays of new and old money alike, complete with the wildest rich-person game since “Boar on the Floor” and the creepiest singing children since “M3GAN” belted “Titanium.” But it’s the attention to detail that sets the show apart. Parallels and symbolism are subtle but plenty, with cheeky moments of foreshadowing you may only catch the second time around. The cinematography cleverly reflects such narrative choices, playing with mirrors and emphasizing reflections and doubles. The themes made obvious by the twins — what it means to be a mother, what it means to be fully yourself, what it means to sacrifice pieces of yourself for someone you love — apply to other characters and dynamics as well, exploring each concept in holistic and unexpected ways.
The focus on creating layered, complex characters takes it from excellent to truly sublime, namely when it comes to the main twins: Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Rachel Weisz). It’d be tempting to describe their dynamic as an evil twin situation, an angel and devil on the shoulder, although that would be not only reductive but inaccurate. Each twin has their own specific flaws and desires. While, yes, Elliot is, on the surface, the more compromised one, she’s also shown to be better at bedside manner at times — and more honest. Beverly is more grounded and seems to be more altruistic, but make no mistake — she has secrets and moments of moral questionability, too. One thing is for certain: Though they’re codependent (to a dangerous fault, as you’ll see time and time again), they’re distinct. A lot of that can be attributed to the sharp writing, but it simply doesn’t work without a star who’s capable of playing both parts with enough nuance that they each feel fleshed out. Thankfully, Weisz is more than up to the task, completely transforming herself, and her physicality is particularly notable. Beverly is all tense muscles, with the straight-backed posture of a ballerina, while Elliot has an alluring, almost animalistic quality about her. She doesn’t just eat — she devours. She doesn’t just crawl across the counter — she slinks. She doesn’t just yell — she primal screams. Weisz plays brilliantly off herself; it’s always apparent which twin is in the frame, whether it’s Elliot or Beverly or Elliot impersonating Beverly.
The show transforms into a stylish nightmare, grounded in the real, physical as well as subconscious messiness at the intersection of science and motherhood and sisterhood and technology and money and morality, whenever the Mantles are alone (separately or together). Yet “Dead Ringers” is smartest, and often devilishly funny, in its many table-side conversations in Rebecca’s rarefied world. Whether they’re set at a trendy Manhattan restaurant or the dining room of a Southern mansion, these scenes plausibly give voice to all sides of debates at the cutting edge of maternal medicine. Too rich or high on their own delusions to bite their tongues, the Parkers (pharmaceutical billionaires) and their friends say all the quiet parts aloud about abortion rights, experimentation without patient consent, and unequal access to quality care. The outrageous dinner sequence also gives us a peek inside the morally questionable world of ‘Big Pharma’ and how easily the devastating effects of America’s opioid epidemic is justified in the name of profit.
While not for the faint of heart, overall, this is an extraordinary series, one that—like Lady Macbeth and too few examples of streaming-era horror TV—locates subtlety, humour, beauty, and the contradictions of womanhood in the most operatically unhinged of stories. Birch fleshes out “Dead Ringers” by widening its thematic scope and injecting a brand of delivery-room realism that heightens its shock value. You’ll never look at a sonogram the same way again.