Richard Ayoade is a fascinating actor/writer/director. He is in some ways terribly English but also ‘international’ as someone with Norwegian and Nigerian parents deserves to be. The IT Crowd is the only half-hour sitcom I’ve followed in recent years and he was an integral part of it. His first film directing project was Submarine (2010), a successful comedy-drama adapted from a novel by Joe Dunthorne but clearly nodding towards its range of cinematic influences. The same is true for The Double. Again it is an adaptation – loosely so this time. Ayoade accepted a commission to work with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother) to adapt the 1846 novella of the same title by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The original story involves a government clerk who has a form of mental breakdown in which he sees a second version of himself taken on as a new employee. In Ayoade’s adaptation the central character is Simon James and his double is James Simon. Jesse Eisenberg plays the two roles convincingly. No one else sees the new employee as a double – they seem to treat him as a completely new and different person. James is everything Simon is not – confident, articulate and instantly successful in developing relationships with everyone he meets. He’s also adept at stealing all Simon’s work and ideas. A direct confrontation is inevitable.
Ayoade has assembled a star cast with numerous cameos by cast members from Submarine (Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts) plus comedy friends Chris O’Dowd and Chris Morris. Mia Wasikowska is the object of Simon’s romantic interest. Overall this is an American idea taken on by Ayoade and produced in the UK with a mainly UK cast and crew. Eisenberg and Wasikowska (plus Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty) are there because they suit the roles but they will also help to sell the film in the US. The ‘fictional world’ that Ayoade creates is much less easily defined. Most of the film takes place at night or in the dark and depressing offices of a corporation run by ‘the Colonel’ (Edward Fox). Sets were constructed in a temporary studio space in London with a strong design idea utilising a subdued palette and low-key film noir lighting. This imagined world is timeless and without a specific geographical location.
As with Submarine, the main problem in writing about the film is to get past all the influences. It’s appropriate for me that one key influence I noted was Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) with Anthony Perkins. The East European sense of paranoia in the face of ‘officialdom’ fits the Dostoyevsky story very well. The Press Notes tell us that Ayoade gave The Trial to Eisenberg as preparation. I’ve seen other reviewers suggesting that Orwell’s 1984 is another influence and also Gilliam’s Brazil. At first I did struggle to get beyond these references in an attempt to engage with the narrative. That I did so and ultimately enjoyed the film is down I think to the excellent performances and Ayoade’s preparation and direction. I must mention the music which seems to riff on East Asian pop music as well as Andrew Hewitt’s original score. I hadn’t heard Suikiyaki by Kyu Sakimoto for a very long time before it popped up here. The look of the film is also down to Norwegian cinematographer Erik Wilson (who also shot Submarine) and production designer Andrew Crank.
I’m thinking about using The Double with students, but I’m not sure yet how I’m going to approach it. It’s a brave film in many ways – challenging audiences, especially younger audiences, to accept something different. I don’t think it received all the support it needed to do well in cinemas. Some audiences won’t take to it, but others will and I’m sure that they will find it somehow. I’ve tagged the film as ‘Black British film’. I’ve not seen it described as such and I don’t know how Richard Ayoade might feel about the description but I think it’s something to explore.