Richard Ayoade’s new movie is thematically tied to his 2010 debut Submarine, both films constituting a wry glance at the lonely, romantic fantasies of reclusive young men. Submarine would make for a compelling double-bill alongside this sophomore directing effort, but audiences expecting something tonally similar to Ayoade’s sensitive, self-aware coming of age drama will find themselves contending with something surprisingly dark, more intellectually ambitious. An appropriate progression perhaps, considering the nature of the Dostoyevsky novella upon which the movie is based.
The Double follows office employee Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), performing day-in, day-out, a mundane job involving ‘regression analysis’ (the exact nature of which remains teasingly vague) within the confines of a nightmarish industrial dystopia, seemingly reminiscent of Soviet Russia or the work-place of Thatcher’s Britain. Simultaneously ‘ultramodern’ and painfully retro, the brown-dusty palette of Ayoade’s film immediately establishes the emotionless, claustrophobic world Simon inhabits – surroundings which seem to intoxicate his very character, even down to his vapid stillness.
Against this bleak canvas, Simon’s attentions are occupied by two things, the first being a space-age TV adventure show (lead by a pouting, stubbly Paddy Considine) which is, at once, hilariously dreadful yet channels the energy of creepy Orwellian propaganda. The second is the ethereal Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who lives in the flat opposite Simon but pays him little attention. Unfortunately for Simon, Hannah’s reciprocal affection seems as distant and unreal as the TV programme. Simon makes up excuses daily to visit Hannah but can never muster the courage to speak, instead, in a Rear-Window-esque trope, watching her silently through his telescope at night; it’s tragic, absurd, hilarious and creepy. Indeed, this multiplicity of tones, balanced so delicately by Eisenberg’s performance, is what makes The Double a truly impressive work.
The central conceit of the film follows Simon James meeting James Simon, an exact replica of himself facially but in all other senses his polar opposite. Ayoade draws out the uncanniness of the scenario with skill; because Simon is so essentially invisible in contrast with the ebullient and charismatic James, no-one is able or willing to recognise the eeriness of the situation, making this a complication which Simon must deal with independently. The camera-work effortlessly captures the neurotic disorientation of Simon, and Ayoade’s tendency to dwell on shots with a sort of irrational precision collapses the distinction between the psychological and reality to unsettling effect.
Notable too is the sound design of The Double, switching between mechanical droning, orchestral scores and dead silence in a way which further highlights the extent to which what we watch is being distorted by a disturbed perceiving consciousness. Where Submarine utilised voice-over to great effect, here Ayoade deprives us of any mediating or signposting voice, assaulting the mind and senses with pictures and sounds as tantalising and mystifying as its Dostoyevsky source material.
It’s funny, but uncomfortably so. Although lightened by a number of brilliant cameo roles (Chris Morris as a ‘workers service executive’ and Craig Roberts as the side-kick of a suicide police investigator are particular stand-outs) Jesse Eisenberg is not playing the role for the laughs. Although he clearly relishes the egotistical narcissism of the extrovert James, both roles are thoughtfully shaped and ultimately quite saddening. Indeed, it’s almost anti-comedy, as if James is trapped inside a sit-com, trying to break out of the comedic set-up in which he is ensnared, where everything is designed to frustrate his very human desires.
Unfortunately, Ayoade’s film can be so thoughtfully stylised and psychological that there are times when the action on screen becomes distant, at time alienating. Although the film demands a cold temperature to convey the numbed, stilted life of James, even Mia Wasikowska’s deeply sympathetic performance can’t always retrieve the film from the lifelessness it has tried so hard to convey; I found myself yearning for the underlying warmth of a film like Submarine. This is potentially problematic in a film which has so many narrative twists, where even the slightest disengagement engenders confusion in the mind of the viewer.
Nevertheless, the 93 minute running time means the film reaches a deeply satisfying conclusion before the film’ coldness can become tiresome. And the way Ayoade maintains a consistency of tone throughout is preferable to tacking on half-an-hour of superficially sentimental slop – the road too often taken by indie film-makers. It’s a provocative, aesthetically arresting piece on the way our exterior environment dictates what it means to be an individual, shrewdly written and cleverly acted. Although Richard Ayoade will hopefully remain on Big Fat Quiz of the Year for the foreseeable future, his second directorial project demands that he is taken seriously as an auteur-director, not simply as a TV funny-man.