With his first film, Submarine, Richard Ayoade proved that there was more to him than his brilliant portrayal of The IT Crowd‘s Maurice Moss, crafting a warm and smart coming-of-age tale. With his follow-up, The Double, not only does he prove that he is not just a funny actor, but a film-maker with great ability and a fantastic eye for detail. An atmospheric black comedy with a fascinating setting and a profoundly unsettling central premise makes for one of the year’s best films so far.
Adapted from Dostoevsky’s novella, The Double is the the story of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a complete nobody, ignored by his workmates, invisible to the woman he appears to love (Mia Wasikowska) and insulted by his mother. He is so inconsequential to the world he inhabits that when his exact doppelganger, James Simon (also Eisenberg), appears at his work, no-one notices until Simon points it out to them, and even then, no-one cares. Inevitably, having a double proves problematic to Simon, especially when it transpires that James is entirely unlike him in personality – outgoing, impulsive and demanding. Eisenberg does a wonderful job of highlighting their differences, with the discrepancies in their body language often clear enough that it remains clear who is who. The other main performances don’t quite match his, but there are some lovely cameos from a lot of Ayoade’s previous collaborators including Chris Morris and Chris O’Dowd from his It Crowd days.
However, the real star here is the atmosphere. In adapting the book, Ayoade and his screenwriting partner Avi Korine made the excellent decision to move the action from late 19th Century Moscow to a mysterious, grimy, 80s-feeling dystopia (evidently inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), with Simon employed by a ‘data processing’ company which never really reveals what it actually does. I found every minute spent in this world utterly compelling, with the production design and cinematography aided by genuinely outstanding sound design. The score, effects and licensed songs all merge perfectly to create a feeling of timeless otherworldliness. Simon could be anywhere on Earth, with the only times we see outside showing us the exterior of his apartment complex and his elderly mother’s nursing home. Rarely, a film will have a atmosphere that is so strong that it gives me a sort of ‘tunnel vision’, so that I am unable to look away from its world. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of those films and The Double is another.
With this being its main strength, it would be easy for the film to ignore a cogent story and rely upon its environments to carry it, and, although the film is guilty of this to some extent, I found the narrative genuinely engaging, with a particularly satisfying ending containing just enough ambiguity to leave some mystery, but not so much that the audience will feel cheated of a conclusion. Everything is set up with beautiful precision for the finale which, fittingly for a film based on a Russian book, follows the rule of Chekov’s gun to a T. It is incredibly difficult for me to find anything particularly negative about The Double. It is a brilliant film, both in story and execution and proves Ayoade as an engaging and highly original filmmaker.