There is no denying that the dual performances at the heart of “The Devil’s Double” are impressive, and Dominic Cooper will, I’m sure, be duly rewarded with more work and acclaim, and he deserves it.
But aside from those performances, I’m not really sure what the point of “The Devil’s Double” is. It’s based on the true story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier who went to boarding school with Uday Hussein, where the tremendous similarity between the two of them was noticed by everyone. Years passed, and Uday finally sent for Latif, ordering him to undergo plastic surgery and dental work to make the appearance even more similar so that Latif could appear in public as his fiday, his double. Latif tried to resist, but when his family was threatened, he finally agreed and spent several years in the role, horrified by Uday’s cruel and brutal excesses. He finally escaped in 1992, and became an author, eventually writing about his experiences.
So, yes, I understand that this is based on something that happened, and I can even see the appeal in telling the story, but unless you find a way to make the film work as a story and an experience, communicating something about the characters or the situation, then that doesn’t matter. The Uday we meet at the start of the film is the same semi-idiotic moral vacuum that he is at the end of the film, and the catalog of atrocities we see along the way don’t really change our understanding of him in any way. Lee Tamahori made his international reputation as a filmmaker with the strong and upsetting “Once Were Warriors,” and that’s a brutal movie that takes these ugly, awful moments and spins them into something that means more than just “isn’t this awful?” Here, I don’t think the material ever becomes more than a series of terrible things that happen.
Part of the problem is that Latif is a passive protagonist, and he spends most of the movie powerlessly observing Uday as he rapes and murders. His “awakening” towards the end of the film is entirely self-motivated, and there is a human cost to his freedom that makes me deeply dislike him as a character. Without someone to hold onto in the midst of all this bad behavior, it just comes across as a bit of a wallow. And if that’s what Tamahori wanted to make, I could hang with that, but only if he really embraced it and went whole-hog around-the-bend crazy with it. For a movie about a disturbing monster who was given free reign to do whatever he wanted, the film is more restrained that I would have expected. Several times now, I’ve heard Tamahori refer to “Scarface” when talking about this, but “The Devil’s Double” never gets enough manic, excessive energy built up to become the same kind of deranged kick that “Scarface” was.
“The Devil’s Double” is very slick, and Sam McCurdy’s photography is one of the stars of the film. His work in incredibly glossy and beautiful at times, and it manages to recreate the early ’90s without turning the period detail into a joke of any kind. Aside from Dominic Cooper and Ludivine Sagnier, no one’s really got the sort of role where they would make an impression. It is a very small film, all things considered, and while I admire the craft of it and the seamless way in which Cooper not only plays the differences between his character but also in which the dual role was shot, I can’t say I thought much of it as a movie overall.
“The Devil’s Double” opens in limited release tomorrow.