The Double (2013)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, James Fox, Chris Morris, Chris O'Dowd, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige, Paddy Considine

Directed by: Richard Ayoade

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James in The Double

Richard Ayoade's take on Dostoevsky's short story 'The Double' plunges us into an Orwellian dystopian retro-future in which everything is grimy, brown, depressing, dysfunctional and no doubt smells of boiled cabbage. Our hero, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) works in a dimly-lit, claustrophobic subterranean office that seems devoted to pointless button pushing, endless photocopying, report generating and data processing. Poor Simon is, in his colleagues unkind words, 'a bit of non-person', a Mr Cellophane that everyone seem to see straight through, from the over-officious security guard on the door to his bumptious line manager (The Princess Bride's Wallace Shawn – inconceivable!) to the girl in the photocopying room he adores, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).

And the one day, a new employee arrives, and he is everything Simon is not: handsome, gregarious, popular, go-getting. His name? James Simon. His face? Simon's own…

At first it seems as if the advent of James may actually do Simon some good. At last, here is someone who listens to him and understands him, who can push him from his comfort zone and instil him with a modicum of gumption.

Not for long. Next thing he knows, James has not only stolen Simon's face but his girl, his work, his apartment and his job. Like Jekyll's Hyde, James is Simon's fantasy alter ego, but also his nemesis.

Mia Wasikowska as Hannah in The Double

Like Dostoevsky's story, Ayoade's film is an insightful exploration of selfhood, asking what makes us who we are? Throughout the movie we see Simon project his desires outwardly onto others, while taking no steps to fulfil them himself: he spies on Hannah but will not ask her out; buys her earrings but doesn't give them to her; writes reports he doesn't hand in. To defeat his dark shadow James, he must assimilate his arrogant, out-going personality and temper it with his own gentle nature – but can he do this? Let's just say that nearly two centuries of ‘doubles' fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe to David Cronenberg, is against him.

Mixing the 1940s-style machine-driven bureaucratic hell of Terry Gilliam's Brazil with the run-down, post-Soviet aesthetic of Nightwatch, The Double creates an unsettling atmosphere of nightmarish uncertainty and unease, a feeling only heightened by the random appearance of Channel 4 stalwarts like Chris Morris and Chris O'Dowd in cameo roles.

The pace does flag a little half way through, but on the whole The Double is deft, subtle and intriguing, a surreal tapestry woven through with jet black humour that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. Like The Office meets Twin Peaks, it's both painfully British and utterly alien, a world apart from our smart, shiny, over-connected 21st century world, yet as wearingly familiar as our own faces in the mirror.

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