Uday Hussein (Dominic Cooper) led a life of immoral excesses, gaining notoriety across the world for his savage tantrums and acts of causal barbarity. The eldest son of Saddam, Uday’s notion of power was clearly lent to him by an empire he didn’t understand, and even a developed intellectual mind couldn’t conquer his untamed animal nature. The man bathed in gold, kept a walk-in wardrobe of Rolex’s and Armani, and could take his pick of women to bed. Any film which wishes to portray his life honestly – or in Lee Tamahori’s case, entertainingly – must indulge Uday to some degree, for these excesses led directly to his downfall. But if The Devil’s Double is to be that film, it first has to learn restraint. The introduction of Uday doppelgänger Latif Yahia (also Cooper) is a necessary dramatic device, as he allows the audience a moral compass with which to identify, but he alone is not enough. Yahia’s story, published in 1997 under the title I Was Saddam’s Son, forms the basis for this wantonly indulgent uprising story which Ain’t It Cool News dubbed as “Scarface Of Arabia“. And I’ll let that speak for itself…
The biggest problem with The Devil’s Double – outside of its lurid aesthetic decay and troubling depiction of women – is its complete refusal to engage with politics. Screenwriter Michael Thomas has crafted an economic slice of fact-o-fiction (Yahia’s story is unsupported by any other source), hitting genre beats with aplomb, but he never allows for a sense of the bigger picture in Iraq. We rarely wander outside of the four walls of Uday’s palace, whose sickly, vomit-yellow art design is often too much for the eyes to take. Instead of politics Thomas attempts to engage in a battle of wits between Latif and his captor, building psychological profiles for the two men. But depth is a challenge he fails to rise to, and without a social backbone to rest on The Devil’s Double sags into a repetitive cycle of parties and executions. By the time we get to the third club scene, and ‘Relax’ is blaring across the dancefloor, I began to wonder what point the film was arriving at, and if it would be arriving soon. Indeed, the length of those 109 minutes is about the only fair comparison to draw with Lawrence Of Arabia…
DP Sam McCurdy is a rising talent, but his compositions here are grotesque, sometimes intentionally but often through sheer clumsiness. In one club scene he frames Ludivine Sagnier halfway between the Virgin Mary and a two-bit hooker, ogling her scantily clad body under a ray of neon blue light; it could be an outtake from a Madonna video, and even then it’d be embarrassing. To his credit, there’s very little that can be done with interiors this garish – they’re likely true to Uday’s tastes and the period setting, but sweetcorn yellow couches certainly don’t require this much saturation. Oh, and on the subject of Sagnier… what’s she doing here?! A French actress of enviable talent, her most compelling work to date is in François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), where her burgeoning sexuality informed much of the tension between her character and Charlotte Rampling’s uptight novelist. Here, in wobbly English, she is stripped down and adorned by the camera, but given a one-note character to work with. I struggle to comprehend why an actress of her stature would accept this material. Here her sexuality is thrown away, especially in a gratuitous sex scene which bores rather than titillates.
Of course, the talking point of the film has been Dominic Cooper, and his dual role is handled with admirable conviction. I’d never considered him an actor of great range, but here he injects depth into two completely opposing characters. We loathe Uday and sympathize with Latif, but the screenplay really gives him little to work with beyond the surface of these men. Each have a single note: insanity and vulnerability. Cooper brings different shades to each, but he’s working way above the material, and commendably so. The awards season is nearing and it would certainly be nice to see his name on a shortlist somewhere, but the ugliness of the surrounding film will likely harm those chances. Talk about a diamond in the rough…
Probably not worth shelling out for Blu-Ray on this one, as the aesthetic is poor to begin with and the DVD is perfectly serviceable. If you have to buy the film, I doubt you’ll be missing much in the jump to HD. Image and sound are fine, considering my comments in the review above. The extras include a director commentary, making of, interviews, premiere highlights… a solid little package actually, but none of it is particularly interesting enough to recommend viewing outside of a rental.
DIRECTOR: LEE TAMAHORI
STARS: DOMINIC COOPER, LUDIVINE SAGNIER, RAAD RAWI, NASSER MAMARZIA,MEM FERDA
RUNTIME: 108 MINS APPROX