‘The Devil’s Double’ is anchored by a fantastic performance by Dominic Cooper (Review #2)
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Written by Michael Thomas and Latif Yahia, Based on the novel by Latif Yahia
The idea that there could be someone in the world who resembles us so much that they could pass as our double is a popular meme in literary imaginations, frequently expressed as the confusion between a peasant and a noble who appear physically identical, but whose life experiences are radically different. The only question is how far back do we go to find the original idea first expressed: Moon Over Parador? The Great Dictator? The Prisoner of Zenda? The Prince and the Pauper? A Tale of Two Cities? The Man in the Iron Mask? Twelfth Night?
In fact, the idea of the doppelgänger is such a primal one that it is expressed in the very first piece of recorded literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sumerian king Gilgamesh is such a tyrant, particularly in exercising his droit de seigneur that the Gods create his twin Enkidu, “let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.” Enkidu is from the wilderness, the country, while Gilgamesh is from the first city Uruk; Gilgamesh is royalty, while Enkidu is a peasant; Gilgamesh is noble of birth, but poor in spirit, while Enkidu is born poor, but inwardly noble. As the Gods planned, Enkidu’s appearance, and eventual fight with Gilgamesh, tempers the king’s tyranny. In the many reflections of the story since, the dream has always been that the king’s double or reflection will help free the people, either by distracting the king (The Epic of Gilgamesh), shaming the king (The Prince and the Pauper) or by outright replacing the king (The Man in the Iron Mask).
The Devil’s Double is both a return to this story and a departure. It is a return since it is set in Iraq, the modern day Uruk. It is a departure because unlike fictional imaginations of the royal doppelgänger it is based on the true story of Uday Hussein (eldest son of Saddam Hussein) and his double Latif Yahia.
Like Gilgamesh, Uday Hussein, “sounds the tocsin for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.” Unlike Gilgamesh, Uday can not be redeemed. His insanity is not temporary, it is complete and permanent.
Like Enkidu, Latif is a peasant compared to Uday, albeit one from a rich family. He is descended (in part) from the nomadic Kurds. Like Enkidu, Latif is particularly enraged by Uday’s behaviour towards children and brides. Unlike Enkidu, Latif does not improve the tyranny of his king. Uday does not fall in love with Latif, seeing his reflection makes Uday fall even more deeply in love with himself. This is nowhere better shown than when Latif nearly loses a finger as a result of an assassination attempt on Uday and Uday loses his mind at the idea that his double, his mirror might become imperfect.
As historical recreation, The Devil’s Double is very strong, albeit based entirely on the not-disinterested account of Latif Yahia in his books I was Saddam’s Son, The Devil’s Double and The Black Hole: The Real Story of the Man Who Was Forced to Become the Double Of Saddam Hussein’s Sadistic Son. Not to suggest that Uday’s monstrousness is in any way exaggerated, but Latif’s nobility of spirit might be slightly accentuated.
The Devil’s Double is anchored by a fantastic performance by Dominic Cooper as both Uday and Latif. He brings both men to life with subtle mannerisms that make it instantly obvious which is which. (His Uday tends to always be performing towards the nearest mirror. His Latif is never comfortable, always a little bit stiff and self-conscious.) Unfortunately, Lee Tamahori seems to not quite trust the performance and is constantly reminding the audience that Uday is Uday and Latif is Latif with more obvious tricks like Uday’s hair and Latif’s glasses.
The gold standard for an actor’s portrayal of double is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Beverly and Eliot Mantle in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Irons’ acting is so strong and Cronenberg’s trust in the portrayal is so absolute that at times the actor achieves multiple levels of impersonation. Not just playing Beverly and Eliot (1st level) or playing Beverly pretending to be Eliot and vice-versa (2nd level), but in one memorable scene playing Eliot pretending to be Beverly badly pretending to be Eliot (3rd level).
The genius of Dead Ringers is the way that it illuminates the tragic attraction of wanting to be what we see, of the Narcissistic desire to become our own reflection. The failing of The Devil’s Double is that every time the film tip-toes up to the idea that Latif might be seduced by Uday’s charisma, power, or wealth, the film turns and flees from the notion as quickly as it can, and it never for an instant considers the possibility that Uday might be seduced by Latif’s inner nobility.