The Double is remarkable for just a second feature film and confirms Richard Ayoade as one of the most exciting directors working in cinema. Having brought a fresh, inventive and original touch to the long-standing ‘coming of age and first love’ tale in 2011’s Submarine, Ayoade takes another old concept and imbues it with dark humour, individuality and superior technical direction.
From a script written by Avi Korine (brother of director Harmony Korine, most recently of Spring Breakers) loosely based on the Dostoevsky 1846 novella ‘The Double’, the film follows Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy, socially awkward young man wandering through life in a world that barely acknowledges his existence. Set in a dystopian bureaucratic industrial world of seemingly perpetual night, the film feels futuristic yet also retro – like an expressionist take on a Soviet-style British future imagined in the 1980s. Simon is a hardly known drone in an office where he must continually prove his employment to security, (the barely-lit basement of hulking machines used to process vague information where he works immediately reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), and he pines over his attractive neighbour and co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, perfectly employing her ethereal beauty and ‘otherness’).
As Simon drifts along feeling increasingly detached from the world, as if he might just disappear, his life takes a strange turn with the arrival of a new employee at the company – James Simon. James is Simon’s exact double (a fact which no-one else seems to notice), right down to the same ill-fitting suit. But it turns out he is more mirror image than copy. Eisenberg is excellent in the two roles, making them clear individuals and embodying them with his strengths – the meek, do-gooder that makes the audience want to hit him into action or assertiveness seen in Adventureland and Zombieland; and the slippery, smart-talking customer from The Social Network and Now You See Me.
What ends as a nightmarish scenario for Simon, (for what’s worse than encountering someone who’s exactly the same as you, but better), begins somewhat hopefully, with the pair aiding each other. James is confident, charming and charismatic and he acts as Simon’s guide in his burgeoning relationship with Hannah, while the latter returns the favour at work. But it soon turns sour as James starts to take control and sets his sights on Hannah, power at the company, and Simon’s life.
The believability of the world creation in The Double is second to none, and the acting from the main and support cast is excellent (which nods heavily to Ayoade’s past with parts for Paddy Considine as the hero of Simon’s favourite Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace-esque sci-fi TV show, Nathan Barley’s Chris Morris, The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd, as well as the whole cast of Submarine), but what really struck me about the film was the lighting and sound design. Cinematographer Erik Wilson evokes noir films of the 1950s with his use of shadow and smoke, while the Orwellian sickly green and yellows of what little light there is draws you into the world. Much like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream, the sound design of The Double is somewhat unforgettable. Ayoade spent four months creating the soundscape alone, and it really shows; the unsynced, layered, created and repeated sounds, along with Andrew Hewitt’s terrific score, producing a true sense of unease and of a world different from our own.
While I didn’t find the film quite as funny as many others in the audience, the dark subject matter and psychological elements are bolstered by Ayoade’s comedic sensibilities, adding another level to a multi-layered film. Its faults lie primarily in the plot, which is never as engaging as the world or its characters, and the final act feels rather rushed and unsatisfactory; but the sheer energy, creativity and feeling that there are no films out there quite like this right now, make those faults easily forgivable.
Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Written by: Avi Korine
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor, Wallace Shawn, Yasmin Paige
Distributed by: Madman Entertainment
Running time: 93 min