The David Cronenberg psychodrama gets a cold, clinical facelift for streaming, with a wild dual turn from Rachel Weisz.
When it comes to prestige limited streaming series, horror movies (especially of the more grotesque persuasion) don’t tend to be common fodder. But with Rachel Weisz at the helm, Prime Video’s latest thriller series, Dead Ringers, looks to David Cronenberg’s 1988 film of the same name. Though undoubtedly a formidable showcase for Weisz, who pulls double duty as twins Elliot and Beverly, Dead Ringers struggles to remain fresh and interesting, often overstaying its welcome and retreading familiar territory. Admittedly, swapping the genders of its protagonists makes for an interesting approach to the subject matter. But Dead Ringers lacks the killer instincts and stylistic flair that makes the film so fondly remembered.
Adapted by Lady Macbeth scribe Alice Birch from Cronenberg’s original (itself taking from Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s novel Twins), the six-episode limited series follows a pair of identical twin doctors, Beverly and Elliot (Weisz), who run a cutting-edge fertility clinic that offers “bespoke medical care” to pregnant women. Elliot, the more outgoing and dominant of the duo, heads up the facility’s research labs, while the shy, bleeding-heart Beverly is in charge of the birthing center. But between research and deliveries, the twins have codependent personal lives that are further complicated when they “swap” so Elliot can woo the beautiful women Beverly doesn’t have the guts to pursue herself.
Once Elliot “gets” someone for Beverly, they simply switch back—a system that works until Beverly’s relationship with the latest patient, actress Genevieve (Britne Oldford), gets serious. The closeness of their relationship threatens Beverly, who begins to spiral at her potential usurping as the most important person in her sister’s life. Working in tandem to keep wealthy but cruel investor Rebecca (Jennifer Ehle) happy, their personal and professional lives begin to break down and Genevieve drives a wedge between the sisters that exposes long-festering wounds.
Swapping the genders of Beverly and Elliot (though still maintaining the fairly unisex name) goes a long way to add new context to the setting and plot of the original Cronenberg film and the Wood/Geasland novel. Instead of simply being outside observers who treat women’s birth difficulties, Beverly and Elliot themselves have a history of infertility, and both harbor complicated feelings about having children and the idea of motherhood.
The series ditches entirely any mention of macabre surgical tools that made the Cronenberg film so memorable, and though it does keep the red scrubs and sometimes engages in strange imagery (like the lambs frequently featured in marketing materials) any sort of darkly whimsical creative sensibilities are absent from this remarkably by-the-book erotic thriller.
But both the film and the novel also focused heavily on the twisted bond between brothers, which is also the most important narrative element in the Dead Ringers series—albeit one that sometimes overstays its welcome. While the idea of identical twins who have a borderline psychosexual obsession and deep-seated attachment to each other is certainly a fascinating one, it quickly becomes clear that Birch has a couple of thematic beats she wants to hit, and doesn’t tread far from familiar narratives.
Beverly’s desire to have a baby while being infertile, Elliot’s obsession with growing embryos (for the supposed sake of her sister), and Genevieve’s role in driving the two of them apart are the three main ideas the series explores, over and over again. Sure, there are a few tertiary players—including Poppy Liu as the twins’ mysterious housekeeper Greta. But Greta’s story and scenes mistake a repetitive lack of information for mystery. By the time we finally find out what the deal with Greta actually is, it feels unimportant and lackluster, especially considering how unrelated it is to the story of Elliot and Geneviveve.
The best example of Dead Ringers turning to half-baked subplots to fill six hour-long episodes is the virtual entirety of Episode 5, which sees the twins whisked away to a strange, Atlanta-esque Alabama plantation to dine with a wealthy Southern doctor (Michael McKean) who made his name in gynecology mutilating slave women. Though it features some undoubtedly unsettling and effective performances, the episode is the only time the series engages with the prominent history of Black women being sexually exploited for the sake of white advancements in medicine.
It’s also hard to take seriously when the series’ only prominent Black character is introduced just before the episode and departs the series briefly after—only around so he can be used as a mouthpiece for the writers to acknowledge but not wholeheartedly explore a subject they themselves broached. Guest actor Brittany Bradford almost single-handedly saves the episode with her powerful, scene-stealing performance, a shining light in an otherwise lackluster departure from form.
Though it comes to a satisfying enough (though perhaps inevitable) conclusion, it’s difficult to call Dead Ringers a worthwhile use of your six hours, especially when we’ve seen this story before at a quarter of the runtime. The real draw here is, of course, Weisz’s double-duty performance, an undeniably explosive, unmatchable turn that’s so startlingly effective it’s often easy to forget Beverly and Elliot are played by the same person.
She wholeheartedly embodies both women and crafts two fully realized but starkly contrasting performances, between which it’s difficult to choose a favorite. But the cracks of Dead Ringers quickly begin to show, especially towards the back half of the season when Beverly and Ellie begin to drift apart and have fewer scenes together. While the aesthetic sensibilities and script are undeniably sharp, Cronenberg got it right the first time by adapting this twisting tale of obsession and birth for a feature film; making it a limited series just leads to complications.
Dead Ringers rips out of its womb and onto Prime Video April 21st.