The Double

Released 2013 now available to buy / starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn / written and directed By Richard Ayoade from a story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Imagine if you turned up for work and there was someone else who looked exactly the same as you but nobody noticed this to be the case. What’s more everyone preferred them. This is the premise for Richard Ayoade’s follow up to the excellent Submarine, a film which suggested he could be Britain’s Wes Anderson. The Double seems to indicate that his films may embrace a much wider palette than Anderson’s very precisely calibrated worlds.

It is based on an 1846 story by Dostoyevsky of the same name in which a character encounters his physical double who possesses the opposite personality characteristics. That story has been much interpreted over the decades with many seeing it as alluding to schizophrenia.  This project was simmering for a while before Ayoade came on board and was originally envisaged as having a more contemporary look set in a large modern office.
The director opts instead for what looks like a cartoon simplicity of vision that is both striking in its own right and enhances the slight story considerably. We’re in a world of night-time shadows, of neon and misted up windows. We rarely venture outside and when we do its mostly dark and wreathed in smoke. While partly dictated by the technical requirements of the production process this aesthetic is perfect in conveying grim workplace tedium and oppressive regime.
Simon James has worked in the office for seven years yet nobody seems to know him except his boss who constantly criticises his work rate. In the more overtly comedic first half hour a simple loss of a pass causes him all sorts of access issues. It is never stated what the workplace is; it looks like a cross between a 1930s office and factory with the occasional anachronism thrown in. There is thick metal, lots of partitions and everyone looks drab, beige and mostly old.  Simon seems the youngest here by decades except for Hannah who works in the gloriously old fashioned photocopying room and on whom he has a rather intimidating crush. In this part of a dual role Jesse Eisenberg plays against his usual loquacious type, in fact when with Hannah he can barely speak. Instead he watches her in the opposite flat and when she frequently tears up pictures he hurries to the waste room to retrieve and then re-assemble them.  A suicide in the grim block of flats brings the couple together in a way though this is a tentative friendship.
Cue the arrival of James Simon the exact physical doppelganger of James but in personality terms the opposite. You wonder if he imaginary at first, a creation fuelled by the desire to take his relationship with Hannah further.  He soon charms the office and Simon himself but it’s not long before his motivation becomes clear. He is using Simon to do all his work while he chases after both Hannah and bosses daughter Melanie cheating everyone. In embodying all of the qualities- good and bad- that Simon does not have we are set up for an increasingly fast but more serious final stretch as they struggle with each other for control of different aspects of their lives.

In two roles yet looking identical much of the weight is on Jesse Eisenberg to make each character discernibly different which he does with considerable aplomb. If it becomes slightly confusing towards the end that seems deliberate and adds to the unique feel of the film. How literal the scenario is remains open to interpretation but Eisenberg gives both characters enough impact. I found Hannah slightly underwritten though this may be deliberate as we are seeing her through either James or Simon’s eyes. Mia Wasikowska makes a lot of what she has though and manages to overcome any script shortcomings in her area. Also making an impact are Wallace Shawn as the boss and Yasmin Paige as his far more modern seeming daughter.
Whether or not you `get` The Double it always looks impressive. There is a fine line between what could simply be an enhanced pop video and something more which the film never crosses to its credit. Visually it maintains its look throughout with just the occasional splash of louder colours. Ayoade is strong on conveying the repetitive nature of the workplace and how it can strip people’s individuality away while there’s also an amusing line in security protocol that seems more resonant of modern times than the old fashioned world we see. The production design suggests those post war visions of what the future might be like and there is a delightful inconsistency in some of the technical advancements. The factory appears to be run by a character called The Colonel which hints perhaps at some sort of Russian style military world though the script declines to define exactly where we are either in time or place so it’s up to the viewer to guess.
The ending is something you’d need to absorb on a second viewing as what precedes it is clearly intended to dazzle if not confuse. The obvious route out does not seem to be taken leaving you with the impression that while The Double is an excellently presented piece with strong central performances it could  actually appear more profound  than it is. Even so it is well worth seeing and in an increasingly homogenous film world represents a daring attempt to try something different.

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