Is there anybody on the planet who doesn’t like Mark Ruffalo? Well, maybe Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, both of whom he’s rebuked. But I meant normal human beings, not political snake oil salesmen with an empathy deficiency.
Ruffalo is one of the good guys. He’s campaigned for a variety of worthy environmental and social causes, and was the first male Hollywood star to lend vocal support to the #MeToo movement when his peers were keeping their heads down and their mouths shut.
I’m even prepared to forgive him his involvement in that gag-inducing celebrity video mangling John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.
Still, you’re going to need all the tolerance and goodwill you can muster to get through even the first episode of his new HBO mini-series I Know This Much is True, in which he plays identical twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, whose lives are touched by trouble and tragedy. Touched is probably an understatement; swamped would be nearer the mark.
Based on Wally Lamb’s 900-page novel, which I haven’t read and probably never will now, it’s a gruelling misery fest that throws everything except the kitchen sink at the unfortunate siblings, who were born either side of midnight on the last day of 1950.
The six episodes toggle between 1990, when George HW Bush is in the White House and the first Gulf War is raging, and various points in the past.
Dominick is a house painter in Connecticut. He’s been divorced from Dessa (Kathryn Hahn) for a few years and is weighed down by the burden of (there’s no other way of saying this) the tragedy, so far unspecified, that broke them apart.
The more troubled brother — and the suffering bar is set pretty high here — is Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic. The tone of what’s to come is set in the opening scene when Thomas, sitting in a public library and raving loudly about making a sacrifice to end the war, pulls out a small machete and saws off his right hand in front of a group of terrified children and horrified adults.
When an agonised Dominick refuses, against the advice of the surgeons but in keeping with Thomas’s wish, to sign a paper giving permission to reattach the hand, an operation that may not work in any case, the burden of caring for his mentally ill brother increases.
As we see in flashbacks to 1987, that burden was bequeathed to him by his mother (Melissa Leo) as she was dying from cancer. She has no other choice but to depend on Dominick to look after Thomas. The twins’ stepfather Ray (John Procaccino) is a thug who passes off bullying as strict parenting.
In another flashback, this time to the boys’ childhood, we see Ray slamming Thomas’s elbow painfully onto the table after he raises it a couple of inches while eating.
There’s already a lot to take in here, but then another plot strand is woven in. In the ’87 scenes, Dominick’s ailing mother presents him with an old manuscript written by her own father, recounting his life story. It’s in Italian, though, so neither of them can read it.
Dominick hires an oddball academic called Nedra (Juliette Lewis) to translate it; when she starts to reveal what an appalling man his grandfather was, however, he rather wishes he hadn’t.
Lewis, who’s funny and quirky, briefly lets a little light to the gloom — up until the point where she turns up at Dominick’s house, gets drunk, throws herself at him sexually, then freaks out and vanishes, taking the manuscript with her.
Back in 1990, poor Thomas is incarcerated in a high-security prison, pushing him further over the edge.
I Know This Much is True, adapted and directed by Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), is undeniably heavy going. What makes it tolerable is Ruffalo, whose dual performance, aided by seamless technology, is so good that you often forget you’re watching just one actor. All I’m saying is just don’t dive in expecting to be uplifted.
I Know This Much is True (Sky Atlantic/NOW TV)