In the wake of the recent developments of the Arab Spring, the prospect of the release of a film about the doppelganger of Saddam Hussein’s son struck me as intriguing. Coupled with the publicised application of sophisticated technology in its production, and the knowledge that is was chiefly filmed in Malta – including the promise of a cameo appearance by our very own alma mater – The Devil’s Double’s lure radiated in a gold to rival that of its own poster.
The film is based on Latif Yahia’s autobiographical novel of the same name and, given the subject matter at hand, I can see how Lee Tamahori could have found it a challenge to direct this. Latif is the unfortunate soldier and childhood ‘friend’ of Uday – the ‘Black Prince’ of Iraq. In 1987, he was selected to become Uday’s ‘fiday’, or ‘bullet-catcher’. In Latif’s words, this was the day of his own death. Yet, it was also the birth of a sadistic mind game with the psychological and physical consequences that its Machiavellian and perverted puppeteer would inflict on ‘noble’ Latif.
Whilst Tamahori describes The Devil’s Double as a return to the great gangster movies, I cannot help but feel that the effect achieved is not altogether congruent with this presentation. Anna Sheppard’s costumes work wonders to transport the viewer into the decadent, 1980s world of the Iraqi elite. Malta itself successfully doubles as the land of contrast that was Iraq under the Hussein regime; various inconspicuous locations serve as derelict zones that strikingly juxtapose against the luxurious, excessive settings of the Hussein properties.
All this helps generate an atmosphere of profligacy inherent in many gangster movies; as do the random bouts of celebratory gun-fire, Uday’s lascivious indulgences and his deranged violence sprees. Not only do these things heat up an already interesting plot but they also seem to act as a main attraction themselves. Yet, whilst this would possibly have been satisfactory in any mainstream, fictional gangster movie, I kept finding myself feeling slightly more confused with every ‘shock’-factor charged digression that kept being dished out…until finally, digressions stopped digressing from anything distinctly in focus.
Perhaps I was looking for a political statement or an eloquent reflection on an unfortunately fresh and delicate, historical wound in a cinematic work that simply does not seek to do that. Yet, in my opinion, the very fact that one is left pondering such thoughts is an indication that something which at least acknowledges these sentiments was not brought to the table when it ought to better have been. The film’s script, written by Michael Thomas, attenuates some these shortcomings by the effectively portrayed silences in the dialogue. At times, these seem to invite the viewer to create a personal evaluation of the dramatic unfoldings from the big screen.
By and large, the great saving grace of this film is, in my opinion, the outstanding delivery of the main actor – Dominic Cooper. Aided by technology, Cooper projects the part of the ‘Devil’ and his ‘Double’ in a seemingly effortless and scarily believable performance(s). Some of the work that the production team put into the minor facial, aesthetic differences between the two is cleverly included in the film to help the viewer identify the two protagonists. As one can imagine, there is some difficulty to connect with the mad, gun-toting debauchee that is Uday. Yet, even with the lacking support of badly-cast Ludivine Sagnier (who plays Latif’s love interest), Cooper pulls off the personifications of the Id and the Ego in a human and compelling manner.
I guess this means that the moral of the story is to watch this film if you mostly want to see a rare feat of acting…and also that if you’re the son of a dictator, some director might one day hotchpotch an extended infomercial of your exploits that doesn’t have much of a moral or a story to it.
N.B: This review has also appeared in ‘The Insiter’ (a student magazine).