I really liked Richard Ayoade’s first film, the Welsh coming-of-age dramedy Submarine, and I also like doppelgänger stories, so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I was impressed by his second effort, The Double. Adapting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother) have crafted a film that’s as amusing as it is bleak, mining Kafka and Orwell for inspiration as well as the source material. Jesse Eisenberg plays the slightly charmless and downtrodden Simon, a largely forgettable office drone who has worked without thanks and without making much of an impression on colleagues for the past seven years. He is secretly in love with one of them, photocopier Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to live in the apartment opposite his own. She seems to like him, too, until Simon’s physical double suddenly turns up at work; by contrast this new employee, James, is ambitious, confident, charming and a hit with the ladies, and he soon usurps Simon in a number of ways, not least with regard to the potential love of his life.
Their place of work is a dimly-lit retro-looking corporation that brings to mind Michael Radford’s adapation of Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and it’s filled with all these whirring, oversize computers and other unwieldy pieces of brass machinery that all look as if they need to be powered-up by crank handles. The CEO is simply referred to as ‘The Colonel’ (James Fox), and no-one seems to know what the company actually does, although it produces a nice line in 1980s-style instructional videos. Petty bureaucracy obstructs the employees at every available opportunity; you’ll either find the build-up of this amusing or you’ll sit there stony-faced, wondering what the fuss is about, but I think Ayoade has a great sense of humour and he sends up the trivialities of the workplace with repeated success. Simon has worked at the company for years but still the security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who also plays two characters) won’t let him in without a pass, which has been lost. He attempts to get a new one from a grinning, nightmarish HR officer (played by the satirist Chris Morris) but is informed that there’s no record of his employment, which means he can’t have a new pass as technically he ‘doesn’t exist’.
Spending time in this strange place never becomes boring. The same goes for the other starkly-lit locations that we visit or return to less frequently: a miserable cafe with poor service, a noisy restaurant, the dingy apartment blocks that Hannah and Simon call home. Each is populated with a wandering oddball or two: Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis pops up as a janitor, comedian Tim Key is an uncaring care worker, Chris O’Dowd plays a pushy nurse and Paddy Considine appears on numerous TV sets as the star of a cheapo sci-fi show that resembles Blake’s 7. Ayoade has clearly pulled in a few favours and his casting agents have also carried out their work successfully; on top of all those mentioned above there are appearances by Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty, who played Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull, while Considine is joined by the rest of the Submarine cast (Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins). Most of these actors fit their quirky, minor roles very well indeed, and that applies all the way up to the two leads, who are tailor-made for this kind of angular, tragicomic material. In fact I haven’t seen Eisenberg in such a well-suited role since The Social Network, and he convinces while playing both sides of the same coin.
In the hands of a lesser talent the balance between creepy paranoia and lashings of dry humour may have been misjudged, but Ayoade gets it just right, rolling between the deadpan and the dystopian with consummate skill. I like the cinematography here, especially the use of a drab brown and green colour palette, and there’s an interesting reliance on front-lit scenes throughout, lending a theatrical air to proceedings. If any corners were cut – I can’t imagine the budget being particularly high – it’s not noticeable. You could argue that Ayoade lays the obvious motifs on a bit thick, even though mirrors, reflections and shadows are the bread and butter of any film about identity and duality, but aside from that I can only think to praise this smart, funny film. Great soundtrack, too, ranging from baroque classical pieces to avant-garde adventures in noise to kitsch lounge bands.
Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine. Based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, James Fox, Cathy Moriarty, Tim Key, Sally Hawkins, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Chris Morris, J Mascis, Paddy Considine.
Cinematography: Erik Wilson.
Editing: Chris Dickens, Nick Fenton.
Music: Andrew Hewitt, Various.
Running Time: 93 minutes.