“The Double,” an ambitious, artistic, and psychologically unsettling film based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, explores the life of a timid introverted government clerk, Simon James (excellent Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”), whose lonely existence renders voyeurism his only refuge. He observes his co-worker and love object, Hannah (fetching Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland”) from across his concrete apartment building courtyard. While peeping at Hannah one night, he witnesses a suicide in the courtyard that sets up the action of the film.
A new hire, James Simon, also played by Eisenberg, joins Simon’s depressing anonymous government agency. Simon and James are physically identical, but they have very different personalities. The newcomer is self-confident, cheeky, manipulative and seductive — qualities Simon lacks. At first the two are friendly, but soon a pattern emerged in which the brash James begins to dominate the self-effacing Simon. James uses Simon to fulfill his work requirements, to cheat on tests and to impress their boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (always first-rate Wallace Shawn).
As James emerges as a powerhouse at work, his withdrawn double literally fades into the background. Although the two maintain the appearance of friendship, James sadistically menaces Simon. For the coup de grâce, James tries to add Simon’s beloved Hannah to James’ long list of conquered women. Simon’s denuding becomes so complete that he is no longer recognized as an employee.
Dostoevsky’s surreal imagination becomes apparent as Simon finally takes action against James in an ending that can be understood on both literal and figurative levels. Is there a doppelganger or is Simon struggling with himself?
Talented director Richard Avoade (“Submarine”), cinematographer Erik Wilson and the art and set directors have created a riveting authoritarian world. The film’s oppressive setting in time and place succeeds in capturing Dostoevsky’s surreal netherworld. The location resembles a soviet environment, where unpainted unrelenting concrete is the décor. The drab offices and apartments are minuscule and unadorned. Hannah’s job is to make photocopies on a large contraption in the office where only bulky land line phones are used. “The Double” was filmed in London, where the dim light and fog adds to its mood.
Jesse Eisenberg’s acting is a tour de force. It’s remarkable that while wearing the identical ill-fitted suit and displaying the same slumpy posture, Eisenberg can create two distinct personalities. I was involved with Simon’s surreal world and sympathized with him. I watched the film raptly albeit disconcertingly, but was a bit disappointed by the slightly pretentious and ambiguous ending. It isn’t very often that producers and directors take the creative and artistic leaps that they do in this film. Although “The Double” is by no means perfect, it is one of the more intriguing films I’ve seen this year.
© Emily S. Mendel 2014 All Rights Reserved