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Anyone who is familiar with the trailer for The Double (2013) (though we should know that trailers are not made by the film-makers) is not going to expect Dostoyevsky’s novella to be any more than a jumping-off point for the film (as Thurber’s story is for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)), but what the trailer does do is to suggest misleadingly* that the latter is also a benign, and less dark, study in the nature of inadequacy.
Particularly at the start (before we meet Simon James’ double), it feels as though co-writers Richard Ayoade (who also directs) and Avi Korine (from that family whose members brought you, amongst other things, Spring Breakers (2012)) have ‘mashed up’ sources such as those that follow (although that feeling of making reference, or borrowing, does dissipate somewhat over time, as the propulsive nature of the telling takes over (please see below)) :
* Gogol’s story ‘The Overcoat’ (some see Dostoyevsky’s work, four years later, as a rebuttal of Gogol’s works)
* Yury Tynyanov’s Lieutenant Kijé (as popularized in Western Europe by Prokofiev’s Suite, Op. 60, distilled from his film-music)
* Brazil (1985)
* Rear Window (1954)
* Elements of Lynch (not least the feel, look, and sound of the world of Eraserhead (1977))
* Even The Apartment (1960)
Without saying more, one will see – unless one guesses – what aspects of the film correspond with the earlier material to make this disturbing whole, driven along by the Glass-like rapid string arpeggios of Andrew Hewitt’s score, or the low-frequency rumbling that makes the corridors seem so unnerving …
And that apart from other disturbances in James’ life of the kind given by Sally Hawkins in a nice authoritarian cameo, let alone the increasingly hostile security guard (IMDb puzzlingly says that it is ‘rumored’ that this was Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s role), or the grumpy service in James’ local café (asked why he comes back here, he says that he is ‘loyal’ – and one cannot conceive of James doing anything very domestic in his flat, with utensils that look to be of grandmaternal origin).
In an early scene, in an underground train equally devoid of comfort (or a sense of the common good), we imagine that it must be a nightmare of the type in 8½ (1963), or a parody of one – James is, in what is established here, seen to be so labile that we have to hope hard that he can show himself as in the Mitty film, and maybe wonder whether he is more in the vein of Ronnie Corbett’s Timothy Lumsden in Sorry !.
In this film, partly because we are influenced to identify with Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), partly because we look for an emergence into real life of The Replicator** (in the form of Paddy Considine), which James says is his favourite t.v. programme, we invest a hope in what might happen. We believe that Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) might respond to James (whose interest in her is reminiscent of that of Josef K. in Fraülein Bürstner in Kafka's The Trial ?), if he knew the right thing to do, and we believe in the notion from Roxanne (1987) (and its more illustrious antecedents) that he might he helped to, and for, his own good.
It might have been fun if Wasikwoska had doubled the part of Melanie, played by Yasmin Paige, to mimic Eisenberg’s duality : as it is, we are offered an insight into her character’s fragility, which has been exploited by a knowledge of that of James, and we see her torn, although not in a way that is not unusual in cinema (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) ?), between what attracts everyone else and the likelihood (which, with Marilyn’s Lorelei, fatally attracts, or at least fails to repel) of getting hurt.
Of course, the theme of betrayal by a seeming friend is an age-old one, pre-dating Judas, and which has resonated ever since, in, for example, the tables being turned on K. in Kafka’s The Castle by his assistants (themselves a form of substitute). Here, far more was possible with the topic of identity theft than the film encompasses, and it prefers to stay within the general bounds of what is a person and what about a person is perceived to make him or her worthwhile.
In the end, subverting the messages of James’ powerlessness (as we provisionally thought that it had to), it offers the sort of Pyrrhic victory*** that we know, for Ray, from In Bruges (2008). It is not unlike many other endings (e.g. from episodes of Star Trek (original series only, please) or Dr Who, amongst others), and so concludes the piece, nowhere near Dostoyevsky (unless we make some massive inferences), because there had to be some ultimate resolution.
That said, principals Wasikowska and Eisenberg are both excellent, and the film is not without an effect from how it contrasts the homeliness and colour of her flat with that of his, as well as from Hewitt’s score, and the levels of tension that it gives to this cheerless universe.
* NB Contains a spoiler As does IMDb : A comedy centered on a man who is driven insane by the appearance of his doppleganger (sic).
** Shades of The Reprisalizer from Matthew Holness’ A Gun for George (2011) ?
Here, the t.v. series is a sort of Orwellian distraction from the predominant greyness of life in this place and time, though it is less clear that it is a degraded world of the kind that Gilliam’s referenced film gives us, or a reimagined instance of the early computer age a parallel for the world of the pre-Soviet government department.
The real Replicator in the film is Hannah (probably in more senses than one), because she is a junior member of the copying department, operating what some might describe as a steam-punk take-off of the large and clunky Xerox® machines from the late 1970s : James and she are amongst the few of an age in this organization. Her boss tells James that any sensible person would want two copies (which proves to be astute, although James does not want another he), not just the one that, as a pretext for being there, he keeps coming up and asking for.
*** You could even posit a reference to the scene with the Patronus across the lake in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)…
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)