With a grimly familiar undated dystopia, a trampled hero bent on transcending and a blonde woman providing the only source of light in a corporate hell, Richard Ayoade’s The Double is very much indebted to Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel.
Jesse Eisenberg is Simon, a man who goes through his life almost unnoticed. The security guard at work doesn’t recognise him; in fact, he’s not even on the system. He lives alone in a small flat, watching his beautiful colleague and neighbour Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) through a telescope.
One day, he arrives at work to find James, his exact double, has begun working there. He’s more confident and more popular, and he seems open to the idea of helping Simon actually talk to Hannah. However, it soon becomes clear that James has different plans.
Ayoade’s debut, the sharp coming-of-age comedy Submarine, hid its big beating heart beneath stylistic flourishes and an acerbic wit. Anyone looking for a similar sense of optimism and romanticism in The Double will have to look a lot harder. Eisenberg’s Simon isn’t too different from a lot of sad-sack hopeless romantic indie leads, but Ayoade and Avi Korine’s script doesn’t do him any favours purely because he’s good-natured.
The world of The Double is an almost unremittingly cold one, and the fantasy heroism of the TV sci-fi star (played with a grin by Paddy Considine) Simon likes remains exactly that. Similarly, the decision to keep Wasikowska’s Hannah at a distance is welcome. She regards his hapless mooning as stalking, and with fair reason.
The very large debt to Brazil, as well as David Lynch’s Eraserhead, will rub some the wrong way, but Ayoade makes his combination of British and American corporate hells uniquely awful. The main problem is that the film doesn’t seem sure how to fill the time in the second half, with a few cameos feeling rather forced. The supporting cast is excellent, however, with Noah Taylor (Game Of Thrones) and Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) helping to make Simon’s workplace all the more awful, while the consistently excellent Wasikowska (Stoker, Only Lovers Left Alive) is tremendous as she brings multiple layers to a dream girl who is neither manic, nor a pixie.
It’s beautifully detailed, very (darkly) funny and Eisenberg is superb in his dual roles. The icy chill of Ayoade’s film will not be for everyone but it’s a striking, darkly comic character(s) study that’s commendable for its refusal to compromise its worldview. It’s difficult to love, and all the more impressive for it.