HBO Review – I Know This Much Is True (2020)


I Know This Much is True is the stunning new drama from HBO, starring Mark Ruffalo at his finest. Based on the relentlessly tragic 1998 novel by Wally Lamb, the six-part miniseries is now fully available on Amazon Prime and Now TV. But be warned: you’re in for a grim ride.

Don’t be put off by the oppressive, sombre tone of this beautiful show; it’s as touching as it is melancholic. Some critics have condemned the traumatic plot for decreasing it’s “enjoyability”. However, entertainment comes in various shapes and forms, and not always of the humorous kind. Besides, it’s labelled a tragedy for a reason – nobody was criticizing Shakespeare for being too sad to watch, were they?

I Know This Much Is True is not all bleak and depressing. Though the cinematography is slightly desaturated, in accordance with its dark themes, it is undoubtedly gorgeous. Film grain and misty, earthy-coloured landscapes adds texture to the screen, embodying the vintage of feel of the 90s where the story is set.

Set in Connecticut, I Know This Much Is True follows Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey and his twin brother, Thomas, who suffers with severe schizophrenia. Having spent his whole life protecting and helping his brother – who veers closer and closer into paranoia and obsession – Dominick is faced with a constant bombardment of obstacles. The most recent being Thomas’s imprisonment for cutting his hand off, as a “sacrifice”, in a public library.

Not only does Dominick have a past of death, abuse and family secrets haunting him, he’s additionally been dealt the manuscript of his great-grandfather’s life story. After working tirelessly to get it translated from Italian, it turns out his roots are planted in even more horrific soil. As the drama piles on, Dominick spreads himself far too thin for his own good.

Ruffalo expertly juggles the two roles – of characters at complete opposite ends of the spectrum – whilst creating a clear connection between the performances (as they are, after all, twin brothers). Dominick is a rugged, chain-smoking builder with a strong sense of duty and prone to outburst of anger; Thomas, on the other hand, is an innocent and frightened man, struggling with a disabling mental illness. Both parts are played with equal passion and commitment; Ruffalo grabs our attention quickly and never lets go of the reigns, evoking sympathy and frustration through both characters.

I Know This Much Is True is unafraid to tread on taboos, grappling with the unpleasant realities of our world without exploiting it via gratuitous, explicit imagery. The point – and more importantly, it’s effect on the characters – is made clear with subtle hints and equally well-performed flashbacks with Philip Ettinger. We watch the tornado of events indirectly, through Dominick’s eyes: through memoirs and meetings; phone calls and witnesses; from the other side of the bars.

Despite the apparent melodrama of the narrative, I Know This Much Is True maintains a strong thread of realism throughout the show. The agitation both Dominick and the audience feel are strong because they are believable; the unfair regulations and loopholes of the system are just as relatable now as they were in the 90s. The characters are not morally straight-cut, but realistically complex; though we may initially dislike the doctors and prison staff, we come to understand their position, realizing the line between right and wrong is blurred and arguably subjective.

The hazy backdrop of the Vietnam war and mid-life loneliness looms about the plot pensively, with an air of mourning. Derek Cianfrance directs with predominantly close-up shots, closing in on Dominick with a sense of claustrophobic doom. These tight, often hand-held camera angles are not only rustically beautiful but extremely effective, making even the quietest of moments speak volumes. Even the opening recaps are edited in such an eloquent and precise way they seem almost like little movies themselves.

I Know This Much Is True is a bitterly emotional family saga, probing at our protagonists troubled past whilst pushing him to the absolute limits. The show is upfront and honest, yet artistically subtle, held together by Ruffalo’s high calibre of dual-acting. Kathryn Hahn, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Archie Panjabi and Rosie O’Donnell also star.