To begin this review somewhat tangentially, a comparison: when Portishead’s album Third was released in 2007, the striking genre switch away from the seductive strings and breakbeats of their early albums threw many listeners. No longer content with exploring emotional complexity through deliberately paced formal quirkiness, the group did the aural equivalent of trapping a single, lost, quavering human voice in a harsh metallic urban prison. Great tragic pathos was wrung from the result of this juxtaposition of organic emotions and the crushing sense of faceless industry enveloping it. Richard Ayoade, surprisingly, is the filmic equivalent.
Long term Channel 4 funnyman and director, Richard Ayoade has progressed from the acoustic, emotionally earnest and neurotic Submarine to his new film The Double – featuring Jesse Eisenberg’s existential crisis in what could feasibly be described as hell – ironically resulting in a far more emotionally engaging experience, and one of the most interesting films in a year shaping up to be a standout for intelligent cinema.
Set in what looks like an unnamed town behind the iron curtain, only divorced from any recognisable or fixed time period, The Double follows Simon James (Eisenberg) and his non-life. Leading a negligible existence, Simon is nervous and neurotic, the kind of guy who stands in the corner of an empty lift.
The Double is a subtle tale, reflecting its short story origins, which never aspires to be on a greater scale than it is.
Much early comedy (which can be most accurately described as dark slapstick) is derived from his uncomfortably bumbling through life; losing his briefcase and identification in the first scene, he finds he cannot easily enter his workplace due to no one recognising him, despite working in the unspecified office for seven years.
He silently pines for his colleague Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who lives in the apartment complex opposite his, a suicide is dismissed as the latest in a long line and there’s evidently a short supply of electricity.
A jarring break from this depressing humdrum arrives when a new employee joins Simon James’ floor. A new employee with Simon’s face, named James Simon…
Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story, though definitely taking cues from Franz Kafka’s suffocating bureaucracies and losses of self, The Double is a calculated film with detectable influences, but it never feels like a derivative pastiche.
The best lighting of a film in many a while, gorgeous, almost noir compositions bathe the characters in ominous shadows, bisecting physical form while suggesting the existential crisis at the film’s core.
A distinctive sound design feels very Lynchian (the industrial locale also clearly inspired by Eraserhead’s off-kilter aesthetic), with all diegetic sound – keyboard taps, footsteps and suicidal splats – artificially recorded, compounding the alienated ambience. The overall tone is one of almost Kubrickian coldness – but perversely with a greater emotional core – and all of these traces amplify a potentially slight tale into a tightly controlled mini-masterpiece.
The Double is a subtle tale, reflecting its short story origins, which never aspires to be on a greater scale than it is. This works to its advantage.
At first, James superficially helps and then briskly begins to usurp Simon’s very existence, causing Simon to realise the loneliness he felt before is infinitely more preferable to actually being treated like a non-person.
The film steadily and indefatigably builds to a slightly uncertain dénouement, persistently accompanied by the fantastically arresting, compelling music. The score perfectly evokes the theme of doubles through string-plucked repetition and, via the consequential discord, the existential crisis Simon is undergoing.
The regular appearances of Ayoade’s colleagues (Chris O’Dowd, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige) does much to ground the film as having a very British sensibility, though the actual film itself isn’t geographically definitive. Special mention should be given to an all too brief appearance from legendary satirist Christopher Morris (hopefully this is a signifier of his return to public awareness) and Paddy Considine, the latter of which is humourously only ever seen on a fantastically low-budget retro sci-fi show.
Ultimately The Double is an excellent little film, never overreaching for loftier ambitions and thus achieving exactly what it set out to do. It looks and sounds incredible, and we can only hope for more of this level of quality for Ayoade’s creative team. With the disparate content, tones and themes that they’ve covered so far, one can only guess at what’s next…