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Dead Ringers Is This Spring's Most Visually Intense Experience

But Prime Video’s gender-swapped remake doesn't let its doctors off the hook.
  • Rachel Weisz in Dead Ringers (photo: Prime Video)
    Rachel Weisz in Dead Ringers (photo: Prime Video)

    The implicit threat at the center of David Cronenberg's 1988 film Dead Ringers was the idea of unscrupulous twin gynecologists manipulating female patients for their own ends, both medical and sexual. Jeremy Irons played Beverly and Elliot Mantle as brothers who were diametrically opposed (Elliot stylish and confident; Beverly timid and introverted) yet inextricable from each other, to the point where they often swapped places just for the twisted thrill of it.

    In Prime Video’s adaptation, the Mantle twins are now women, played by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz. One of the new version’s great tricks is drawing in the viewer with the promise that this gender swapping will change the fundamental nature of the original; that Beverly and Elliot Mantle will now be some sort of feminist crusaders on behalf of women who have been disregarded, ill-cared-for, and done wrong by a patriarchal medical establishment that turns fertility and pregnancy into dehumanizing ordeals. But in fact, changing the genders of the lead characters doesn't insulate the new Dead Ringers from the predatory heart of its premise, though it does complicate it in seriously unsettling ways.

    The adaptation comes from British playwright Alice Birch, who wrote the screenplay for Florence Pugh's 2016 breakout film Lady Macbeth. That movie also plumbed the psychological depths of a female protagonist willing to go to disturbing lengths to rage against her patriarchal circumstances. It comes as no surprise that Birch is able to subvert the temptations to "girlboss" the Mantle twins into gynecological avenging angels. Elliot and especially Beverly see the rot at the core of the current state of reproductive health care, but by the time Dead Ringers has wound its way through the psyches of its protagonists, any kind of altruism has been warped and twisted into something gnarly and bloody and perfectly fitting with a Cronenbergian vision.

    It would be reductive to claim that Beverly is the "good" twin and Elliot the "bad" one, though Dead Ringers has fun playing with those simplistic notions. Beverly is the one who's more dedicated to reproductive care. The series premiere bombards the audience with the Mantles' patients, one after another; some further along in pregnancy, some seeking fertility solutions, others doomed to sadder fates. Beverly is fiercely committed to providing the highest level of care she can manage for each of them, even as she privately agonizes over her own inability to carry a pregnancy to term. Elliot, by contrast, is a creature of the laboratory, a setting that better suits her brand of amused misanthropy. She's eager to create human life in a test tube and a lot less eager to hand-hold the parade of patients that pass through their offices; that's Beverly's job.

    The sisters' differences don't mean they're not close. They work together; they blow off steam together; they fend off the gross advances of men at the bar together. Elliot aggressively wants the best for her "baby sister," and Beverly, while routinely blanching at Elliot's excesses, never seems to hesitate to accept her sister's help, even swapping identities when Beverly gets overwhelmed. This pathological codependency becomes strained when Beverly begins dating Genevieve (Britne Oldford), a gorgeous Hollywood star with a streaming series on Prime Video (har har) whom Elliot secretly helps procure for her shy sister. Naturally, this relationship becomes a wedge between the Mantles, who can't seem to function while apart from each other.

    Weisz is rather brilliant in the roles, playing the sisters like the far ends of a rubber band, stretched apart from each other and then snapping violently back together again. There's tenderness in the way Weisz plays Elliot's concern for her sister; steel in the rare moments when Beverly stands up for herself; and moments of playfulness that endear the sisters to the audience even amid the show's grislier aspects.

    One thing the sisters do share is a towering ambition. They both want to open a birthing center: Beverly to revolutionize the standards of reproductive care, Elliot to further her research as far as funding will take her. These ambitions lead the Mantles into darker territory. To get funding, they have to appeal to Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle), a terrifyingly amoral billionaire whose Sackler-esque family has been accused of causing the opioid epidemic. This "Mantle-Parker Birthing Center" is the sisters' dream come true, but it comes with troubling strings.

    Dead Ringers treats these compromises as the poison that they are. The strings attached to the Parker family are laced with corporate greed and biomedical ambition. Those strings extract promises from the sisters to offer a "bespoke health care experience" and prod Elliot to push her research into ethically verboten areas. The all-star team of directors that Amazon and Birch have assembled — including feature film directors like Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Karyn Kusama (The Invitation; Jennifer's Body), and Lauren Wolkstein (The Strange Ones) — render the sinister nature of these compromises in sumptuously appointed dread. Both Durkin and Kusama direct episodes that play like descents into the underworld of predatory wealth. Ehle's performance as Rebecca is the standout in these installments, formidable and frightening in both its unvarnished, Ayn Randian will to dominate and its unabashed disdain for anything approaching altruism coming from Beverly.

    That nightmare aesthetic pervades the show, in a series of nods to Cronenberg's original. The birthing center is a murkily lit bunker whose similarities to the womb are both intentional and claustrophobic. The unnerving crimson surgical scrubs from the 1988 film are present here as well. This visual feast adds a seductive allure to the story of obsession, codependence, ambition, viscera, madness, patriarchy, genius, and capitalism. It’s so effective that some viewers might feel guilty for being immersed in it, or they might even turn away. But there's dark satisfaction to be found in surrendering to the horrific vision that artists like Birch, Durkin, Kusama, and Weisz are presenting.

    All six episodes of Dead Ringers premiere on April 21 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Dead Ringers, Prime Video, Alice Birch, Jennifer Ehle, Karyn Kusama, Rachel Weisz, Sean Durkin