BFI London Film Festival 2013: ‘The Double’ an ambitious and darkly funny second feature
Written & Directed by Richard Ayoade
The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky has been well served by cinema, especially his major works Crime & Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot, all of which have received numerous adaptations throughout the decades. The latter was lavished with a recent Estonian take, after receiving a Japanese decoding by Kurosawa no less, as well as Indian and (naturally) Soviet versions. It has taken until 2013 for a filmmaker brave enough to approach Dostoyevsky’s binary second novel; there is a certain numerical sense of doubling, since Richard Ayoade has decided to allocate his second film as The Double, an ambitiously promising plea following Submarine back in 2010.
Abandoning the novel’s Russian setting, Ayoade’s take is set in some strange alternate Orwellian state, complete with slightly outsized costumes and angled hairstyles, creaking teak-panelled analogue technology, greyly oblique architecture and a smothering suffocation of legislative red tape. Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mid-level drone in an unidentified bureaucratic behemoth, with numerous protocols and workloads to manage. He cuts a rather lonely and forlorn figure, intelligent and ambitious yet lacking the social confidence to progress. Smitten with a reprographics assistant, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), on whom he spies across the courtyard of their dour apartment building, he finds himself unable to confess his desires, his introverted and shy nature precluding any romantic spark to ignite his miserable existence. When an identical clone named James arrives for work at his office, Simon becomes obsessed with the threat to his identity, the potential usurper his physical mirror and social nemesis, coursing with a swaggering confidence, sexual aggression, and extroverted demeanor. James threatens to snatch away his precious Hannah and eclipse his waning career.
The Double is certainly not a film without ambition: you don’t wilfully go into translating two titans of post-enlightenment literature into one film as Ayoade’s paranoid dossier plays as more of a Kafkaesque nightmare than a social critique. It’s an assured second feature that perhaps overemphasizes its theme visually—almost every shot did not need to somehow echo Simon’s micro importance in the oppressively paranoid macro vision—but the lavish attention to design and commitment to world building is to be saluted. The film quickly erects a maintains an infrastructure of uncertainty and absurdist nihilism, lifting the atmosphere of the David Lloyd-pencilied designs of V For Vendetta, alongside a Pythonesque pricking of authority and administrative insanity. Fans of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil will swear they’re seen this one before, as Ayoade’s designs and striking visual arrangements are clearly influenced by that dystopian classic. The Double sports a dossier of influences, also including Polanski’s The Tenant and Welles The Trial, with a smattering of Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique to complement the European flavour of this fractured fresco of personalities.
Jesse Eisenberg’s inherently uncomfortable occupation of his own skin works wonders with his itchy performance as the oppressed Simon, yet he also excels as the serpent-eyed James, a man whose approach to the fairer sex would make Magnolia’s Frank T.J. Mackey blush. Given Ayoade’s small-screen history, it’s no shock to see UK comic cameos galore, including colleagues from the IT Crowd and an ultra-rare appearance from satirical provocateur Chris Morris. More mainstream faces such as Sally Hawkins, James Fox and Submarine co-stars Paddy Considine and Yasmin Paige also surface, alongside Noah Taylor and Cathy Moriarty. Crucially, The Double is exceptionally funny within its dark hypnagogic boundaries, with a nervous vein of situational humor that balances out the lead’s severe mental breakdown. Viewers attuned to Mobius-strip narratives will guess the end so it doesn’t hold much in the way of plot or story surprises, but nevertheless it’s an assured doppelgänger with bold and experimental flourishes of style, a schizophrenic sign of things to come should Ayoade decide to move toward a more emotional, grounded terrain.
— John McEntee