HBO’s new miniseries I Know This Much Is True is a heart-wrenching drama that will punch you in the guts over and over again.
If you’re feeling down about the world right now, best save this one for later.
But if you’re prepared to take the hits, you will be rewarded with a deeply moving, beautifully filmed show with a potentially career-defining performance by Mark Ruffalo, who underwent a dramatic transformation to play not one, but both of the lead roles.
Based on the 1998 best-selling novel by Wally Lamb, I Know This Much Is True tells the tragic story of identical twins, Thomas and Dominick Birdsey, both played by Ruffalo.
The six-part series opens just as Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, has walked into a public library, brandished a knife and sliced off his own hand, sending people running and screaming for the door.
Thomas has been a burden on Dominick’s life ever since they were born, but the two brothers have endured unspeakable tragedies together, which are revealed throughout the show.
So when Thomas is thrown into a maximum-security mental hospital, Dominick plots to win him his freedom while fighting his own battles – namely a broken marriage and a fruitless search for their biological father.
The story, which is interwoven with poignant flashbacks to the twins’ childhood and to their fabled grandfather who brought the family from Sicily to America, is relentlessly sad for at least four episodes.
But it brightens towards the end and will, eventually, leave you feeling satisfied.
RUFFALO ‘UNRECOGNISABLE’ ON SET
In a recent Zoom conference with news.com.au, Ruffalo (Spotlight, Dark Waters, Suddenly 30) described the job of playing both Thomas and Dominick as a “goddamn hardcore acting challenge” that literally and figuratively broke him in two
After filming all of Dominick’s scenes with a body double standing in for Thomas, production had to be halted for six weeks so he could gain an extra 20 kilograms and prepare to switch scripts.
Ruffalo told the New York Times he gained the weight by eating bowls of oatmeal with butter, heavy whipped cream and maple syrup.
Co-star Rosie O’Donnell (A League of Their Own, Harriet the Spy), who plays Thomas’s no-nonsense social worker, said by the time he arrived back on set, he was unrecognisable.
“He looked like a completely different person,” she said. “I walked past him and didn’t recognise him. I said, ‘There’s a strange guy at craft services’ and people looked over and said, ‘No that’s Mark’.”
Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers, Bad Moms), who plays Dominick’s ex-wife Dessa, said she too was blown away by the transformation.
“I knew he was very nervous about it – about how to get there – but boy oh boy I was just blown away,” she said. “You just did not see his eyes in those eyes. He was just gone – even more so than the physical transformation … It was like his point of view had shifted.”
RUFFALO DRAWS ON BROTHER’S DEATH
The series is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans), who is known in the biz for being able to make even the most stoic of cinemagoers cry.
Ruffalo said there was no-one better to bring the twins’ story to life.
“He just brings people to life with all of their shortcomings and all the different masks they’re wearing and the beauty and the s***iness of being a human being,” he said. “I knew he would make a beautiful film and I knew it would be honest and immediate and raw.”
Cianfrance, Ruffalo, O’Donnell and Hahn have each also had their own brushes with tragedy and personal connections to mental health, which they were able to draw upon for the series.
The show is dedicated to Cianfrance’s younger sister Megan, who died while he was working on the show, and Ruffalo’s younger brother Scott, whose homicide is still unsolved.
Scott, a 39-year-old married hairdresser who was barely a year younger than Ruffalo, was found with a single gunshot to his top of his head and a gun in his left hand in 2008. A witness who later turned herself into police claimed he had died during a game of Russian roulette.
“Both of us have dealt with these tragedies and it became clear to us as we were making it that we should pay tribute to our loved ones,” Cianfrance said.
O’Donnell said she drew inspiration for her character from a teacher who cared for her when she lost her mother in eighth grade.
“After a few years of teaching she became a social worker, so I was very familiar with what that takes and what it does to your family and how much emotional energy you expend at your job and then have to come home and deal with that in your own family,” she said.
Hahn said she had a “personal connection” to schizophrenia, and hoped the series would promote a deeper understanding of the illness.
“I think that there is a lot of shame and coding around mental illness and fear,” she said. “Hopefully people will find empathy. I’m sounding nervous only because it is so deeply personal to me.”
Ruffalo added: “As a society we’re so afraid of it – we don’t understand it so we’re afraid of it. It’s behaviour that can be astonishing to us; disturbing to us.
“But once you’re inside it, you really understand and have a lot of sympathy and compassion for people who are living with these kinds of mental illnesses”.
IS THE SHOW TOO GRIM?
Critics have questioned whether I Know This Much Is True may be too grim for right now, when audiences are already feeling isolated and vulnerable due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But Ruffalo insists the timing is perfect while we’re cooped up with our families. “I feel like this moment in time is really exposing what’s most important to us and most essential,” he said.
O’Donnell said while she initially had some concerns, she believed the film could offer some catharsis.
“When I first saw it a few weeks ago in the pandemic I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people too depressed to be able to take this in now? Is it going to be overload?’” she said.
“But I think everyone is looking for something to take them away from the reality that we’re in now and comparatively the character’s life is much worse than we have it here in a pandemic.
“It’s such a beautiful film. All of those feelings that we all have stirring now – all of the angst, all of the worry, wondering what’s going to happen – all those things are themes in the movie so I think people will be able to relate to it.”
I Know This Much Is True premieres on HBO on May 10.