Rachel Weisz has never played a character like Elliot Mantle. In nearly 60 movies, plays, and TV shows over 30 years, she’s been likelier to play Beverly Mantle, Elliot’s twin on the new Amazon TV series Dead Ringers. Beverly is quieter, sensitive, feet so planted on the ground as to seem weighed down by the gravity of life as much as the gravity of Earth; you would call her prim only in comparison with her sister. Elliot is all appetite, eating everyone else’s leftovers after plowing through her own debauched feast of the moment. She’s everything-everywhere-all-at-once in the form of a single person, consuming nonstop sex, booze, and blow; even her gynecological practice is another extracurricular frenzy where she coaxes her patients’ husbands to expose themselves whenever the expectant mother is out of the room.
Elliot and Beverly are gynecologists at the same hospital in the same city, where they live together in the same apartment. Obvious sides of a single coin that, flipped in the air, might come down any moment as two, the twins occasionally swap identities and sexual orientations when Beverly literally lets down her hair and Elliot pins hers up. Based on the 1988 David Cronenberg feature of the same title (which itself was based on a book based on a true story), Dead Ringers is the most recent entry in a prevailing television phenomenon: smart, well-written, and well-acted shows about horrible people named Mantle or Roy or Soprano or Lannister or White—from the Jersey Shore to the desolate spaces of New Mexico to the castles and ruins of dystopian futures and futuristic Middle Ages—amid other horrible people with whom they do and say increasingly horrible things.
Caught up in the current TV sweepstakes in which every show attempts to outdark the other, Dead Ringers is a menstrual maelstrom of birth matter, stillborn children, and gore-splattered mothers dead from childbirth. If you don’t find this daunting enough, there awaits dinner parties that would give Buñuel nightmares, where vicious billionairesses host galleries of the beautiful and damned that could eat the cast of Succession for breakfast and for whom nihilism is a fashion choice. Dead Ringers is the perfect series for those who fret The Handmaid’s Tale has gotten a little too lighthearted. As written by executive producer Alice Birch (a Succession writer, as it happens), the female cast also says “fuck” enough to give Martin Scorsese a run for his manhood.
What can’t be overlooked in all this, however, is Weisz’s work, which constitutes something of a tour de force. Its range extends beyond her able endeavors onstage as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; in British TV’s Worricker trilogy, where she was the most impressive of several high-profile actresses; and on the movie screen as a doomed palace intriguer in The Favourite, a librarian tracking down ancient Egyptian secrets in The Mummy, and a human-rights activist martyred in The Constant Gardener, for which she won an Oscar.
None of those performances quite predicted the ferocity and wit of the Dead Ringers role(s) she’s taken over from the original movie’s Jeremy Irons (the best work he’s ever done), with Weisz managing to locate the dual personalities in each twin while distinguishing the sisters from each other. Even when Elliot impersonates Beverly in dress, appearance, and manner, Weisz successfully communicates the true persona lurking within both, as well as the coexisting implication that there’s no true persona there at all.
The last time TV acting was this complex and accomplished, it was Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany ten years ago—another example of an actor better than the show she was in. For an actress even as familiar as Weisz, it’s a singular achievement, times two.
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