Rachel Weisz’s ‘Dead Ringers’ is a women-led tour de force

Rachel Weisz’s ‘Dead Ringers’ is a women-led tour de force | Soho House

The British superstar’s new take on David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychological thriller breathes life into the art of adaptation, says Hanna Flint

Saturday 15 April 2023 By Hanna Flint

The film and television industry wouldn’t be the creative powerhouse it is without the art of adaptation. Ever since its earliest pioneers, in fact, cinema has sourced material from across history and other artistic platforms to speak an innovative visual language of storytelling into dominance. Take the 1906 Australian bushranger film The Story Of The Kelly Gang, for example. Not only was Charles Tait’s feature the longest seen in the world at the time but, according to writer Stephen Vagg, it was also adapted from one of the many Australian stage plays about the outlaw Ned Kelly who had been executed 26 years earlier. 

Nowadays, streaming services, TV channels and cinemas are overflowing with adaptations of films, plays, books, video games, theme park rides, you name it. I reckon it’s fair to say that the quantity does not equate to quality. Neither does it frequently foster originality. But sometimes a show like Dead Ringers comes along and you are reminded of just what narrative alchemy can be concocted when an adaptation is in the hands of the right creatives.

The new Prime Video series – created by Normal People’s Alice Birch, led and executive produced by Rachel Weisz – is adapted from David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychology thriller of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons in the dual role of identical twin gynaecologists Elliott and Beverly Mantle. The film was itself an adaptation; co-written by Cronenberg and Norman Snider, the film was loosely inspired by the real-life gynaecologist twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus, as well as Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s novel Twins. It’s as dark and twisted as you’d expect from a Cronenberg joint as he explores the dehumanisation of women through the eyes and surgical actions of the Mantle twins. 

Rachel Weisz’s ‘Dead Ringers’ is a women-led tour de force | Soho House

A disdain for the feminine sex permeates the film as these two men use female bodies solely for professional and sexual gratification. The female romantic interests in the film, including movie star Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), are positioned as frivolous, promiscuous and vapid. Claire is further dehumanised when she is described as a mutant because of her ‘trifurcated cervix’ and inability to conceive. This isn’t to say that Dead Ringers is misogynistic filmmaking. Considering Cronenberg’s previous problematic treatment of female characters, this film does a far better job at highlighting nefarious attitudes of patriarchy. But for a film that spends considerable time in the business of women’s fertility and reproductive health, the overarching male perspective is somewhat jarring in the cold light of 2023.

That’s why this new TV series feels like a reclamation of Dead Ringers for women – and not just because we actually see a few vaginas where the original film did not. Sure, Weisz’s version of the Mantle twins are just as brilliant, codependent and at times unethical as Irons’ iterations. But the gendered nuances that come with Elliott and Beverly being played by a woman (they are connected to their patients and the female experience in ways Irons’ Mantles could never be) serve as both an explorative and bitingly relatable jumping off point to examine the systemic and intersectional (mis)treatment of women when it comes to their reproductive health. 

Rachel Weisz’s ‘Dead Ringers’ is a women-led tour de force | Soho House

‘Elliot and Beverly want to have plans to change the face of maternal health; Beverly in the world of the birthing experience, and Elliot in the world of fertility and pushing the boundaries of what is possible for women to achieve through research and science,’ says Weisz. ‘They are at the top of their field and are brilliant doctors, but their private lives are massively dysfunctional and quite twisted.’

Womanhood and motherhood are not monolithic states of being, and this series goes to great lengths to show that. The six episodes boast an impressive array of narrative themes and threads – from postnatal depression to miscarriages, genetic engineering and the continued marginalisation of Black women in the healthcare system – that resonate deeply and increasingly gorily as the series progresses. Reproduction can be a painful, violent assault on the bodies of people who give birth, and in this series scenes depicting childbirth can be visually more horrifying than any of the body horror images Cronenberg cooked up. 

In biological terms, adaptation is ‘the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment’ and that definition seems far more suited to Dead Ringers. In the hands of women writers, the feminine, reproductive subject matter is far better suited to the intersectional feminist environment of today. A narrative case of adapt and survive 25 years on, Dead Ringers is thriving. 

‘Dead Ringers’ screened exclusively at Soho House 76 Dean Street this weekend. Check out our screening schedule to see what’s on at our Houses around the world.

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