On Thursday Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature The Double, based on a Dostoevsky novella, previewed in Picturehouse cinemas across the land.
Despite the promisingly chilling concept of a man (Simon James, played by Jesse Eisenberg) being faced with his doppelganger (James Simon, Eisenberg again) the result was generically surprising and inventive. A first-rate psychological thriller will haunt you for weeks or even months, but Ayoade’s picture is instead memorable for its black-as-coal humour.
Themes of suicide and especially loneliness were sensitively and emotively handled (I was aching for Simon and Mia Wasikowska’s Hannah to find each other), yet The Double is laugh-out-loud witty as well as painfully sad. This is thanks in no small part to the return of Ayoade’s Submarine cast – yes, pretty much all of them. Judging from the Q&A post-screening Paddy Considine’s cameo as the lead in a TV show within the film was a crowd favourite, but I enjoyed Sally Hawkin’s snarky receptionist and Craig Robert’s suicide detective best (although for some this may prove an exception to the sensitive treatment of suicide).
The Q&A was a hit-and-miss affair, led by Jonathan Ross who proved somewhat incompatible with Ayoade. Despite the fact that Ross asked the same question repeatedly in different words (it was probably this that caused some of the Oxford audience to leave early), Ayoade’s comments about the making of The Double were illuminating and interesting, especially with regards to the film’s stellar use of sound and music.
When asked about his motivations for adapting Dostoevsky’s book Ayoade explained how his collaborator Avi Korine (brother of Harmony) had always considered the lead roles of Simon and James a great opportunity for an actor. With this in mind, Eisenberg may seem an odd bit of casting as he has given samey performances as gawky guys fighting to get the girl of his dreams (Adventureland, To Rome with Love). However, as James is everything Simon isn’t, but wishes he could be, The Double allows Eisenberg to bring an understated sensitive-guy performance together with a more brutal and unlikeable persona like that of his more celebrated work in The Social Network. He achieves impressive physical differentiation between the two characters; they walk and stand differently and for this reason it’s difficult to get confused for long about who’s who.
One of my favourite elements of the film was its production design; it is intended to look like Simon’s story is occurring in no particular time and even more so, no particular place. As Ayoade pointed out, this datelessness is aided by the apparently modern world (Simon works in some form of data collection) being equipped with enormous single-function computers. The grey characterlessness of Simon’s apartment, sparsely furnished with a prison-like decor and a small television screen was to me evocative of the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984. Ayoade later commented that one source of inspiration was 1950s speculations of what the future might be like – Orwell’s writing of 1984 in 1948 is close enough.
Although it escalates rather drastically in the final act, The Double is highly watchable and achieves the rare feat of balancing the serious and the comic without ever seeming insincere. The same is true of Ayoade, who was incredibly humble in his interview. Some of his mannerisms and ways of articulating himself were displayed in his run as The IT Crowd’s Moss, though being so self-effacing he’s the first to dispute his acting ability. Judging from the divergent yet distinctive pairing of Submarine and The Double, he has certainly found his groove with directing.
Prepare to be creeped out…
Here are some snaps of me wearing my promotional Jesse Eisenberg mask. In the process of trying to take a decent picture in the orange light of my room I took one that was so dark it looks like it actually is Jesse Eisenberg!
The Double is released in the UK on Friday the 4th April.