Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Review : The Devil's Double

The archive television footage depicting the commencement of the Iran/Iraq war which opens director Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double, his first film since 2007’s disposable Nicolas Cage vehicle Next, proves the first such instance of expositional shorthand of many in a film less interested in its underlining historical, biographical or political concerns than proving its allegiance to previous incarnations of gangster-chic cinematic narratives, most notably Brian De Palma’s 1983 archetype of excess, Scarface. In a similar fashion to the tale which unfolds here, in which Uday Hussain, son of Saddam, holds prisoner an old school friend bearing a striking resemblance to himself in order that he may learn to walk, talk and act like him, delivering speeches and stopping bullets as his body double (or ‘fiday’), Tamahori clearly hopes that the recurrent doubling motif extends as far as his film and De Palma’s, evidently unaware that with minimal scrutiny its glaringly apparent which of the two is the fugazi.

That's not to say that The Devil's Double has nothing to recommend in its own right, most notably Dominic Cooper's towering diptych of performances as both Uday and Latif, here in his first lead role(s), immediately distinguishable with and without the prosthetics used in character to make Latif the perfect double. His Uday is a spoilt, psychopathic man-child, closer in character to Hawks' Tony Camonte than De Palma's re-positioning of the character, waving his gold-plated arsenal at adversaries for his own amusement, a goofy grin plastered across his face whether he's throwing piles of coke up his nose or horrifically raping and murdering schoolgirls. His double, Latif, is a heavy-lidded picture of stoic resolve and honour, at once a victim of circumstance as unimpressed with the decadent world into which he's thrust as Uday is with his refusal to engage in the debauched acts with which he confronts him.

But it's not just in Cooper's performances that the doubling motif reveals itself, Tamahori for the most part skilfully extending it thematically and through visual crescendos. What begins with a somewhat obvious reflection of Latif in a full-body mirror during the opening moments as he arrives at Uday's palace, soon finds more subtle and abstracted refractions in car door panels and reflective surfaces, culminating in a brilliantly surreal image that echoes the surrounding visions of excess and destabilisation of Latif's perceived sense of control as he pauses to watch two Saddam Hussain doubles halting their game of tennis to be served drinks by twinned servants, all four reflected in the mirrored effect of Latif's sunglasses.

Tamahori utilises multiple two-shots, or flanks his characters with two others in a three-shot, a visual symmetry which extends to the production design as well, twin chairs and matching items of furniture at the start provides the mise-en-scene with a thematic reflection of the doubling idea, giving way as the film progresses and the characters break further apart. We are presented as much with twinned pictures of how the doubles differ, from their relationships with their respective fathers to their treatment of the entourages and women which surround them, the yin and yang imagery highlighting the superficiality of the similarities on which Uday depends.

The Devil's Double proves less successful in the sensationalisation of its subject matter, especially its use of violence to hammer Uday's character beats home. A quiet desperation is felt in its quest for synonymity with genre classics, an assassination attempt framed by tumbling oranges from a fruit stall and a final act 'It was you, I know it was you' are awkward hat-tips to the don of family-crime-dramas, and the love affair between Latif and Uday's mistress Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) owes far too great a debt to Scarface for Tamahori to repay. The final act escape lacks sufficient motivation from all concerned with its re-writing of history (essentially admitted in the closing title cards) to provide dramatic closure, cheapening much of what precedes.

Perhaps its biggest flaw however, lies in its misappropriation of its setting and contextualisation to frame its wannabe-gangster stylings. When the father of a fourteen year old girl, raped and murdered by Uday, confronts the prince seeking answers, telling him to 'Look into my eyes. Do you see the pain there? What about the people of Iraq?', the same might be asked of Tamahori, who shows little interest in the wider social consequences for everyday Iraqis living under Uday's reign of terror. He's crafted a movie that wears its cinematic debts on its sleeve, but remains as ultimately self-involved and unconcerned with the truth of its context as the villain around which its narrative revolves.

The Devil's Double - 2011 - USA - 108 mins - Dir : Lee Tamahori

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