‘I Know This Much Is True’ review: Mark Ruffalo sets a high bar for tragedy in HBO’s relentlessly grim new drama

The MCU stalwart plays identical twins in a heartbreaking tale of family trauma

HBO’s new mini series might share its title with the lyrics from one of Spandau Ballet‘s biggest hits, but that’s where the similarities end. This is no light-hearted disco-flavoured drama. Instead, I Know This Much is True is a harrowing analysis of the family unit which sucks you into its black hole of misery, before spitting the viewer out six episodes later, feeling rather exhausted.

Adapted from Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel of the same name, I Know This Much Is True features Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond The Pines) on directing duties – and while this six-part series never reaches the heights of Cianfrance’s Ryan Gosling-starring crime thriller, Mark Ruffalo is so good in the lead that you’ll want to stick around until the end.

He plays twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey – and although they share identical DNA, the two men are polar opposites. The former is frustrated and overbearing, while his brother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Each episode follows Dominick’s increasingly demoralising attempts to get Thomas released from an asylum. It’s an awards-worthy double whammy from Ruffalo, who’s used to being deployed as a solid pair of hands in a supporting part – see Inspector David Toschi (Zodiac), Chuck Aule (Shutter Island) and Dave Schultz (Foxcatcher). But with this all-consuming transformation, it’s hard to see how he could possibly be topped.

Twins Donnie and Rocco Masihi play young versions of Mark Ruffalo’s character. Credit: Sky

Over the last decade, Paul Rudd (in Netflix’s Living with Yourself), Armie Hammer (The Social Network) and Tom Hardy (Legend) have all tried playing two people at the same time on-screen. Ruffalo himself spent eight years hulking around the MCU as the big green Avenger – a dual performance in its own right – but did Bruce Banner ever hack off his own hand as a political protest? Was he haunted by multiple tragedies in a ridiculously short space of time? This is the life of Dominick and Thomas, and it’s not easy viewing.

Alongside the impeccable Ruffalo, co-stars Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) and Rosie O’Donnell (Curb Your Enthusiasm) also shine as Nedra Frank and Lisa Sheffer: an unhinged scholar tasked with translating Dominick’s Sicilian grandfather’s memoirs and a dry-humoured, sympathetic social worker respectively. Their screen time offers flashes of much-needed comic relief, whether that’s swinging by poor Dominick’s apartment unannounced and dancing drunkenly to Wham! or knocking him down a peg or two for his rude attitude. Actor Phillip Ettinger (Brawl in Cell Block 99) makes a case for himself too, whose stint as the college-aged twins during flashbacks is a raw and fascinating portrayal of the Birdseys complicated youth.

I Know This Much Is True
Imogen Poots plays Joy Hanks. Credit: Sky

Sandwiched between HBO‘S Stephen King horror The Outsider and J. J. Abrams-Jordan Peele co-production Lovecraft Country (premiering in August), this relentlessly grim story could be considered the network’s primary piece of awards bait. Fully committed to pain and suffering, just like the original novel is, Cianfrance’s adaptation is a bruising experience that demands your complete emotional engagement. With I Know This Much Is True, as well as recent Todd Haynes thriller Dark Waters, Ruffalo has finally broken into Hollywood’s premier division of leading men, somewhere he truly belongs.

‘I Know This Much Is True’ arrives on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW TV from May 11