I was first introduced to Richard Ayoade with his acting work on The IT Crowd as tech-nerd Maurice Moss. His directorial debut, Submarine (2010), received much acclaim from critics, though I wasn’t a fan personally. This, Ayoade’s second feature film as director (and writer of the screenplay) is based on the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Double.
This is one of those films that will, without-doubt, divide audiences across the globe due to its surrealist style that is becoming something of an Ayoade trademark. With a lovely assembly of a cast, featuring, at the helm, Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker), and with a secondary cast of acting talent like Wallace Shawn (Clueless), Yasmin Paige (Submarine), Noah Taylor (Almost Famous) and James Fox (Sexy Beast) among others, it is a film that, on the performance-side of things, is very, very good.
The story follows Simon James (Eisenberg), a timorous, downtrodden and overlooked guy who feels like a ghost in a world where nobody notices him or his deeds. He works in a place in which it is never actually revealed what it is, and he does a job in which we never really discover what it is. It’s something to do with reports, photocopies and computers. His supervisor, Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn), calls him “Sidney” and doesn’t notice any work that he does, often accusing him of not doing his job. His frustrations with the ways he is being mistreated by everyone, from his co-workers, the people he passes on the street, and even a waitress at a café he frequents through loyalty yet is never able to receive the order he places, go nowhere as he swallows his anguish and politely carries on as normal. That is until a new employee emerges at his workplace, a young man by the name of James Simon. His boss immediately loves this new guy, his co-workers fawn over him, and this bothers Simon so much because, as he finds out when he first catches a glimpse of his new colleague, he is the exact double of himself. A doppelgänger if you will. Simon James is jealous and envious of the adoration that his lookalike is receiving at the hands of people who had ignored and overlooked him for years, but eventually the two begin to form a friendship and go out for a coke together. The film, from here, shows how Simon, the timid and quiet guy, is doing all the work, and James, the loud and lauded double, is getting all the praise. Throw in Hannah, a daydreamer whom Simon has watched from afar for a long time, trying to pluck up the courage to verbalise his feelings to her. Things become serious for Simon when James begins to see Hannah, and the identities of the two begin to merge, with Simon being used as the devil in James’ tormenting intrustion on Simon’s life.
Ayoade has really matured as a filmmaker in the three years between Submarine and this film, and it shows in the way the film moves along, the dialogue, and the sure-footed tone that, while surreal and a bit mad at times, doesn’t feel too much so. It borders of pseudo-intellectual at times, feeling a little like an art-house film that doesn’t want to be an art-house film, but for the most-part I enjoyed it’s weirdness and thought the cinematography, music and set design worked wonderfully in synch, providing a really interesting vision that made the whole experience that bit more enjoyable that it otherwise would have been. With the mention of set-design, my focus when highlighting that is on the workplace which felt like classic science fiction, almost, in design. Like a steampunk office that could have been from a distant past, or a distant future. I thought the creativity in that, and the other sets which felt dilapidated and dirty, was really brilliant.
Eisenberg does a fantastic job of playing two characters here, with the nervous and mumbling Simon, and the confident and manipulative James. Two halves to the same coin, these characters feel like a schizophrenic argument, a clash of personalities that belong to the same being, and Eisenberg puts forth an excellent performance, bringing out two conflicting characters that manage to convincingly share the screen. Wasikowska, as Hannah, provides the focus of the affection from Simon and James, the aim of their admiration and often the reason the two encounter problems with one another. She presents, through the scenes in which she is watched through Simons telescope, a life across the road that might be even more interesting that the one we were being allowed to see, showing quirks and movements that we never learn the meaning of. I liked her here, like I do in most of the films I’ve seen her in so far, and she, along with Eisenberg, make this film one that I enjoyed watching. The secondary cast are also good, especially Wallace Shawn and Yasmin Paige, who both offer some funny moments in their interactions with the Simon and James.
As I reached the final act of The Double, I felt like I’d been watching the visualisation of a nightmare. The frustration of being treated poorly by people you see every day. Your identity being taken from you. Your inability to run away, or fight against, such horrible moments. Suicide. Graves. Misty skies. It felt to me like one long suicide note masquerading as a surrealist piece of cinema, a strange, dark, funny and sad movie that uses visuals that are well-known to be common occurrences in night-terrors. The music is a major factor in my enjoyment of the film, too. It fits in so well with the way it runs alongside particular moods or moments, upping tension when need-be. Andrew Hewitt deserves a lot of credit for the music in this film, one of the stars itself, undoubtedly. Overall, I really was entertained by The Double. It is so creative, and so well-shot, that it is hard not to find something to like about it, and I was won over by these elements, regardless of the moments when the story itself felt a little contrived.
While it isn’t the best film I’ve seen, I still applaud Ayoade’s gusto for attempting to adapt a Dostoevsky novel to film, it’s a brave thing to do, and I feel like, for the most-part, he was successful. It is a truly interesting work and one that makes me excited about modern film, because it shows that there are plenty of filmmakers who are still around, not afraid to take some funny little steps and do some unusual things, things that aren’t ordinary, and that, itself, it refreshing.