Skip to main content
screen time
Open this photo in gallery:
DEAD RINGERS (TV Series). A modern take on David Cronenberg’s 1988 thriller, Dead Ringers features Rachel Weisz (shown) playing the double-lead roles of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twins who share everything: Drugs, lovers, and an unapologetic desire to do whatever it takes—including pushing the boundaries on medical ethics—in an effort to challenge antiquated practices and bring women’s health care to the forefront.

A modern take on David Cronenberg’s 1988 thriller, Dead Ringers features Rachel Weisz playing the double-lead roles of Elliot and Beverly Mantle.Amazon Prime Video

There is a good reason that over the course of David Cronenberg’s remarkable five-decade-plus career, only two filmmakers have ever attempted to remake one of the Canadian master’s films. (And it is only “two” because those filmmakers are twin sisters, Jen and Sylvia Soska, whose 2019 redo of Rabid faded into the margins of genre cinema almost immediately.) Otherwise – barely discernibly Cronenbergian sequels to The Fly and Scanners aside – Hollywood has been rightly leery of revisiting the director’s singular, squishy vision for fun or profit.

Until the streaming wars came along, that is, and now every morsel of intellectual property no matter how niche is ripe for refashioning. Familiarity – even if it is only a vague sensation associated with a 35-year-old movie that has never escaped its cult-film environs – is thought to be safe, enticing and, fingers crossed, good for business. Which is how we got a new Prime Video series remaking Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, with Rachel Weisz starring as the twin OB-GYNs originally played by Jeremy Irons.

When the project was first announced, my immediate reaction was viscerally brutal, my brain attempting to skull-crunch itself in a Cronenbergian bid to not comprehend or accept the news. It is not so much a question as to whether Cronenberg himself approves of the production – his name is nowhere to be found on the series, its credits simply listing the show as “based on the feature film Dead Ringers and based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland” – but one of purpose and necessity. Just ... why? Why??

After making my way through four of the series’ six episodes, though, I think I have an answer – and it’s a surprisingly refreshing one. If a new Dead Ringers absolutely had to happen – if the future of the entertainment industry indeed depends on such IP grave-digging – then even the most gut-hardened of Cronenberg fans can concede that show-runner Alice Birch did the absolute best job possible in birthing this version, which balances as best it can the line between homage and innovation, the stitching together of old ideas and the fusing together of new ones.

Open this photo in gallery:
Britne Oldford and Rachel Weisz in " Dead Ringers".

Britne Oldford and Rachel Weisz in Dead Ringers.Niko Tavernise/Amazon Prime Video

Birch’s big switch, of course, is making the film’s original Mantle twins women instead of men, affording this Dead Ringers 2.0 an instantly intriguing lens to explore gender within the power dynamics of an intensely imbalanced field. Another flex: making one of the characters queer, adding an explicit layer of fluid sexuality to the proceedings that amplifies the taboo tensions of desire that drove Cronenberg’s original work.

While the two leads have the same names and yin/yang personality traits as in Cronenberg’s film – Beverley is the more sensitive and docile one, Elliot the boundary-breaker who skirts all manner of ethical and moral lines – the space that Birch and her writers give the women to move and operate within their world gives the characters a rich, raw meatiness. The time to explore and play with characters is a luxury of the television format, naturally, but it is so easy to see how other, sloppier producers might have resisted going as deep as Birch and her team (including Canadian directors Sean Durkin and Karena Evans) do here.

Birch, a British playwright who has emerged from the wit-required writers’ rooms of Succession and Normal People, starts things slow – almost dangerously so, as the first episode feels far too wedded to what might be considered the “real” world – before she begins to dial up the operatic grotesqueness.

As the Mantle twins pursue a quest to open their own state-of-the-art birthing centre, with funding from the heiress of a Sackler-like opioid dynasty clan (played with hard-edged comedy by Jennifer Ehle), the show sketches out a reality that is entertainingly cruel and warped, wicked and diseased. The third episode, in which the Mantles visit their benefactor’s estate for a weekend, is a wonderfully bizarre exercise in dark humour, complete with a gag about trepanning.

Far gorier than Cronenberg’s film – which was, relatively speaking, one of the director’s more bloodless works – Birch’s series doesn’t so much go for shock as it does awe. If you want to tell a story focused on the most natural act of our existence (childbirth), then you better not shy away from depicting that event from every possible angle. And while Birch and company could have cut down or avoided the more blatant Cronenberg callbacks altogether – yes, the deliberately impractical blood-red medical robes of the movie make a reappearance, as does one quick joke about yet another Rabid remake – there is a reverence on display that underlines the sincerity of the production. (Would it have been too much to ask, though, for Birch to set her series in Toronto as Cronenberg did, instead of making yet another New York story? Think of all the C-11-adjacent bragging rights you could have earned, Prime Video!)

Of course, all of Birch’s delicate, even dangerous work would have largely been for naught had she not nabbed Weisz. Playing Beverley and Elliot with a sharp, intimidating level of commitment, the actress is riveting and wondrous. Like Irons, she treats the material as a dare and a challenge, never resorting to cheap tricks of distinction, but genuinely giving herself over to playing two very different, yet intensely connected and ultimately intractable, characters. It is the kind of deranged but devoted sister act that, maybe – just maybe – might bring a smile to Cronenberg’s face.

But for now, let’s leave the rest of the man’s films alone. I shudder (and not in a good way) to think of what Netflix might do to Videodrome.

All six episodes of Dead Ringers are available to stream on Prime Video starting April 21.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe