Written by Michael Thomas
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Make no mistake about it. The Devil’s Double is worth seeing in theatres, if for nothing else than to see Dominic Cooper’s tour de force dual performance. Nothing previously in Cooper’s filmography could have prepared us for the work he does here. In his first starring role, he makes both Hussein and Yahia into complex and very different characters. The movie surrounding him is very good, although it unfortunately loses its way in the final twenty minutes when it decides to enter pure thriller mode.
Many tales have emerged from Iraq during the time of the Gulf War. Many people have claimed to have known Saddam Hussein, and there are many tales of survival from Iraqis who have escaped Saddam’s Iraq when they could. Lee Tamahori’s film tells the “true” story of Latif Yahia, an ordinary soldier in the Iarqi army who was handpicked by Uday Hussein to be his body double, or “fiday.” When offered, he first politely refused, but was thrown in a cell. After his sister was threatened, he finally consented to hand over his life to Uday Hussein and be his double. Yahia was immersed in the complete shitstorm of corruption that was the Iraqi royal family witnessing first hand Uday’s torture and pilgrimage of the Iraqi people, especially young women. There are quotation marks around “true” here because there have been a few articles lately that have come out and thrown Yahia’s story into a completely different light.
That doesn’t matter here. What we are judging is the film alone and, according to Yahia himself, it is about “70% accurate.” This was a wise move by Tamahori and his screenwriter Michael Thomas, distancing themselves from Yahia’s story. They are allowed some wiggle room, and instead of focusing entirely on Latif, we get to spend a fair bit of time with Uday. This allows us to get under Uday’s skin and we begin to see him as not just a monster but as a somewhat empathetic character. At the end of the day, he is more pathetic than just pure evil. He is lonely and unloved by his father Saddam (Philip Quast). In a perverse way, Uday sees Yahia as a friend – perhaps his only true friend. The scene when Uday is arguably at his most violent is also the scene where we actually start to see him as more than just a monster.
This also has to be the most dysfunctional filmic family in many years. With the way Saddam treats women and his sons, it’s no wonder that Uday grew up to be the person that he was. Violence within the familial unit is also something that Tamahori explored to great effect in his debut Once Were Warriors.
The credit for this has to go to Cooper’s performance. Cooper deserves all the awards that he is likely to get as he is essentially playing three characters: Uday Hussein, Latif Yahia, and Latif as Uday. He pulls each off with aplomb. His Uday is an angry and petulant child who becomes quite violent when his buttons are pushed. His Latif is cool on the outside and a wreck on the inside. As Latif playing Uday, Cooper is quite funny, with a razor sharp wit. It would have been very easy for him to let loose and chew up scenery, but he retains the human core of each character at all times.
The film is well directed by Tamahori, and the first 80 minutes really work. We get to see the inner workings of Saddam’s palace, which is all very fascinating. Uday has many women in his life including Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), who appears to be his main girlfriend. However, he gets bored of her quickly, and often goes out looking for underaged girls to sleep with, usually proceeding to mutilate them. The violence in the film isn’t exploitative but it is rather disturbing. Comparisons have been made to Scarface, but the better comparison might be The Last King of Scotland.
Unfortunately, the film is almost undone in the final 30 minutes when it goes into thriller mode. We need to have the requisite car chases, gun battles, and double crosses. While there are some nice sequences, it becomes a little ridiculous, especially when juxtaposed with the first part of the film. What could have been a great film about this subject, becomes merely a very good one. Still, the film is worth seeing for Cooper’s performance.