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The Devil’s Double (2011,Belgium/Netherlands)

01/01/2012

Director: Lee Tamahori         Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sangier, Raad Rawi, Philip Quast

The Western world has a long and chequered history with Iraq, once considered an ally and then for a long time, enemy number one in the Middle East. When the Coalition troops rolled into Iraq for Gulf War II they carried with them a deck of playing cards featuring photos of the “most wanted” members of the Iraqi Government and high command. Saddam himself was the ace of spades. His son Uday Hussein was the ace of hearts. The Devil’s Double is the story of the man selected to be the decoy double of the ace of hearts.

Looking at it from the point of view of Latif Yahia (Cooper – who also plays Saddam’s son Uday) it tells his story from his selection by the Iraqi administration as the most suitable doppleganger of Uday, through the nightmare of his tenure as Uday’s double and his ultimate escape from this horrific situation. It’s a pretty grim tale of fear and violence balanced by comfort and privilege and a trip into the psyche of an amoral psychopath, far too used to getting his own, consequence free, way to be anything but a monster.

Being directed by Lee Tamahori, the man responsible for the powerful and harrowing Once Were Warriors, I had high hopes that The Devil’s Double would provide some real visceral insights into the dilemma of a man forced to live a double life, someone else’s life, under fear of torture and death for him and his family. The idea of being forced to portray someone as monstrous as Uday Hussein should have provided fertile ground for some gritty psychological horror. Sadly, the film is far more superficial than this.

We get very little background on Latif, the story plunging immediately into his selection and transformation into Uday’s double before rolling off on a series of incidents, a join-the-dots affair of violent outbursts, sexual depravity and grotesque excess without any real exploration of the minds behind either Latif or Uday’s actions. It isn’t clear whether or not Latif has been sucked in by the world of luxury living, fast cars, faster women and power. It isn’t even clear if he’s given it any thought. Personally I was hoping for a more thoughtful and therefore thought provoking film.

Granted, the grotesque nature of Uday is explored through his actions. Rape, murder, torture – all are everyday occurences for the son of Saddam (even when his dad doesn’t necessarily approve) and he is the personification of the ultimate spoilt brat. Completely indulged with no consequences for his behaviour he is the most vile and despicable of excuses for a human being, a fact conveyed by the many scenes of uncontrolled violence at his hands.

As a thriller it works reasonably well. As a biopic I’m not so sure. Even with the on disc interviews it’s difficult to establish the authenticity of the details in the story. The Latif falling for Uday’s woman plot feels so cliched that it’s a little but unbelievable (especially, again, as it’s treated very superficially in the film) and the last act seems so preposterous that it simply has to be an embellishment to the story. A somewhat non-committal end credit message about Uday and Latif’s fate post the events portrayed doesn’t really help the overall sense that a large amount of licence has been taken with the facts.

If you stop thinking of it as a bipoic though and look at it more as an action/thriller affair then it’s actually pretty slick. Cooper’s performance is excellent as Latif/Uday and he has developed the two characters sufficiently that you can pretty much tell who’s who from his performance, even when they are dressed the same or when Latif is going all out to be Uday. His Englishness occasionally creeps through in the accent but that’s perfectly forgivable. I’ve no doubt it was a challenge to maintain both roles, not to mention act with himself, especially considering he must  have spent a lot of time acting scenes from both perspectives to stand ins. The technical effects to achieve the Uday/Latif scenes (or indeed Saddam and his double) are excellent, easily on a par with The Social Network’s twins, with Cooper being seamlessly doubled up in scenes, often feeling like you are watching two identical actors at work.

If you come to this as a slick gangster style thriller (the advertising touts it as “Scarface of Arabia”, I’d describe it as more of a less thoughtful Last King Of Scotland than anything else) expecting thrills, guns, cars and women then you won’t be disappointed. If you, like I was, are hoping for a detailed insight into what it must mean to have a new and quite horrific identity forced upon you, to carry some of the responsibility for the acts of another man, a completely amoral one at that, then you are going to feel a little short changed. Manage your expectations though and this is a half decent viewing experience.

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