Cinema loves a good dystopia - whether it's the result of a future war or disaster ('Akira' or 'Children of Men') or an alternate reality where things are running in an oppressive manner ('Brazil' or 'Watchmen'), we're drawn to the idea of a society where everything has gone horribly wrong, and seeing individuals fight hard to work against it. For his second feature following his acclaimed 'Submarine' (2010), British writer/director Richard Ayoade has created his own little dystopian society with the help of Dostoevsky's classic novel 'The Double', and the result is one of the most exciting and entertaining entries into the genre in a long while.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a solitary and disconnected life as an office clerk in a big corporation. His day consists of working diligently at his job whilst being ignored and disregarded by pretty much everyone, whilst planning how best to get the attention of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the photocopy department, even though he knows he'll never actually do anything. One day, after witnessing a strange suicide on the building opposite him, a new employee arrives in his office, James Simon. The bizarre thing is that James is literally identical in appearance to Simon, something James (the far more outgoing and manipulative of the two) takes instant advantage of. With his sanity starting to slip, Simon tries to keep hold of what he has of his life before James smoothly takes it all away from him.
Ayoade owes much debt to Terry Gilliam for his work here; 'The Double' taking many style and tone cues from Gilliam's classic 'Brazil' (1985). They are two films cut from the same cloth, both fantasy worlds of unending office blocks and forms signed in triplicate, and yet 'The Double' still manages to be something wonderfully unique and totally of its own. Ayoade and his co-writer Avi Korine skate along the edges of the dark material at play by injecting the film with a healthy dose of wickedly black comedy, making 'The Double' a far more entertaining experience than you would expect. Narrative takes a backseat to character, but for once this works in favour of the film. Each character, even those in the background, are beautifully constructed, each an intricate cog in the machine of the film. They've also used the dystopian model as it should be, not just as a warning of impending doom ('The Double' doesn't firmly establish its time and place, just like 'Brazil'), but as a commentary on our own times, especially the grinding wheel of bureaucracy and the destruction of the individual in the face of that bureaucracy. Simon's world has reduced the individual to a number and a possible financial windfall, so it's no wonder Simon is barely a person to begin with.
Ayoade's direction is absolutely impeccable, juggling pathos, comedy and a pedantic sense of style. Every shot is carefully constructed, aesthetic over realism, but like Wes Anderson at his best, this is all in service of the narrative and the characters. 'The Double' takes many twists and turns, and Ayoade handles these shifts with panache. The film moves at a cracking pace, earning its more poignant moments. Simon's plight might be hilariously off-centre, but placed as the central figure of the film, his slip into confusion and madness becomes increasingly distressing, and you begin to get caught up in the inevitability of his situation. The more unusual, almost-nonsensical moments are also sold well, the visual language of the film from the beginning allowing room for us to accept the strange and unexplained. The comedy is perfectly pitched, the rhythms carefully calibrated for maximum effect. You can definitely see the hand of a director all over this film, but in one of those rare instances where the hand is most definitely welcome, especially when it creates such a visually rich world to explore.
What really sells this film though is its superb cast. Jesse Eisenberg gives the best demonstration of his talent and comic timing in years as both Simon and James, juggling the challenge of playing two different characters in the same film. Both men might look exactly the same, but Eisenberg makes each a distinct being of their own, playing off as the mirror for the other. James' arrogant charm, while far more exciting than Simon's timidness, does much to increase our sympathy for Simon. How can he possibly win when his doppelganger is such a force to be reckoned with? The scenes between the two men are absolute magic, and this is thanks mostly to Eisenberg. His role in the film is far from easy, and he makes it look like a walk in the park, all the while making us laugh and emotionally invest at the same time. Mia Wasikowska continues to prove she is one of the most exciting actors of her generation as Hannah. She's an absolute firecracker in this film, cheeky and on point at every moment. Her chemistry with Eisenberg is delicious, and she approaches every scene with fiery intelligence. This, coupled with her equally brilliant performance in the currently showing 'Only Lovers Left Alive', demonstrate just what a great talent we have on our hands. Ayoade has also filled out the rest of the cast with cracker talent, including Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Chris O'Dowd, James Cox, Yasmin Paige, Cathy Moriarty and Paddy Considine. Many are only on-screen fleetingly, but each makes the most out of their time. Nothing and no-one is wasted in this film. Ayoade also allows the international members of the cast to perform in their own accents, adding to the stylised texture of the film. It's a small detail, but another great directorial choice.
The film moves at a cracking pace, earning its more poignant moments.
'The Double' asks its audience to accept its stylistic conceits, and some will be turned away by its favouring of aesthetic over reality and its humorously black outlook, but those swept up in its charms will have an absolute ball. This is original filmmaking at its best, the kind that celebrates the art form and uses it to the best of its advantage, as well as using a fantastical concept to put a mirror up to us and force us to ask questions about the world we have created for ourselves and how we function in it. There's no doubt this quirky little film is destined to be an enduring cult classic.