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I Know This Much Is True is relentlessly grim, but ultimately redemptive

Mark Ruffalo pulls double duty as a pair of identical twins in I Know This Much Is True, a six-part HBO miniseries starting today on Foxtel.Adapted from Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel, the series was directed and written by filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, whose repertoire (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) tend to be emotionally heavy…

Mark Ruffalo pulls double duty as a pair of identical twins in I Know This Much Is True, a six-part HBO miniseries starting today on Foxtel.

Adapted from Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel, the series was directed and written by filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, whose repertoire (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) tend to be emotionally heavy stories.

I Know This Much Is True is certainly that, with a level of intensity that begs for relief.

The series is an absolute showcase for Ruffalo’s performances, but it leads to the question, can something that is relentlessly grim be good TV?

Yes, of course. But you just need to know upfront that I Know This Much Is True will grind you down for four episodes before there’s any real reprieve and redemption, though even its bleakness has a rhythm that you can settle into.

Twins Dominick and Thomas (Ruffalo) are very different people. Dominick was the confident one who had his life together while Thomas, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, unravelled over the years, spouting conspiracy theories and feeling persecuted by everyone.

When Thomas commits an act of violence against himself in a public place, he’s institutionalised in a maximum-security facility. Dominick must fight to have him released, along with the help of social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) and Dr Patel (Archie Panjabi).

Dominick, who once seemed to have a normal, even enviable life, is also on a spiral-of-sorts, giving up his profession to be a house painter (not the Robert DeNiro kind) and now divorced from his wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn).

He has felt the burden of his twin since they were kids, telling Dr Patel that he’s felt Thomas was an anchor that pulled him down his whole life – “I get just enough rope to break the surface to breathe”.

Cianfrance and Ruffalo have crafted this dynamic character in who feels responsible and guilty and resentful all at the same time, a whirl of emotions that drive him. And when that’s mixed in with his own tragedies and a hot-blooded Sicilian temper, Dominick is always on the verge of an explosion.

This series really is led by Ruffalo’s talent, excelling as two characters cast from the same DNA but who are so vastly different, right down to the physicality that distinguishes Dominick and Thomas.

There’s a duality at play which wrestles with what bonds them together, whether it be DNA or what they feel they owe each other. Additionally, that old saying about two sides of the same coin comes to mind.

O’Donnell is also very compelling as the no-nonsense but compassionate social worker who in her own calm way, refuses to be defeated by an uncaring system.

Woven through the 1990 present-day story are flashbacks to their 1950s childhood, their late-1960s youth and to their mother’s (Melissa Leo) experiences with her own father.

Dominick wonders if there’s a family curse given the amount of hardships they’ve endured.

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Cianfrance and director of photography Jody Lee Lipes use a washed-out, grainy and cold visual palette to illustrate Dominik’s austere Connecticut environment, lending to the desolation of the story.

He also favours close-ups to dial up the emotional ferocity of raw moments, sometimes with an almost imperceptible push-in – it’s a small shift in what you’re seeing but the camera move is very effective.

Cianfrance is a storyteller who’s really comfortable with emotional intensity, as evidenced in his previous work, particularly the marital breakdown drama Blue Valentine with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

The more his characters are agonised, the more he is in his element.

Perhaps I Know This Much Is True sounds like too much hard work at the moment, but it’s also rather easy to lose yourself in it – you may want to wait for it to finish first and binge all six episodes at once so you don’t find yourself drifting away between broadcasts.

I Know This Much Is True premieres tonight on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now at 8.30pm

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