During The Devil’s Double, Uday Hussein, the lunatic son of President Saddam, abducts a quiet, even-tempered sergeant from his own army and forces him to undergo cosmetic surgery in order to become his fiday, body double or “bullet catcher”.
You can’t make this stuff up.
No, really, you can’t; The Devil’s Double is a dark and highly-strung thriller based on the true story of Latif Yahia, a man with the unluckiest face in the world. First of all, I should emphasise that it’s a narrative piece based on a true story rather than a biopic, which means that from the outset it was in danger of skirting the borders of bad taste, more so than a film like Inglourious Basterds which was only one chapter in a long history of Nazisploitation. That the source material used for The Devil’s Double is both shocking and outrageous and also comes from real life events means that the film evokes genuine emotion for the people whose lives were ruined by Uday Hussein and his family, and also works reasonably well as a gangster-style action movie.
Dominic Cooper makes the film work, and with a lesser actor the whole thing would have collapsed into an awkward mess despite the best efforts of the writer and director. One actor playing two characters has been done before in the past, and it’s been done extremely badly (of particular note there is Lisa Kudrow playing Phoebe and Ursula Buffay in Friends), since getting it right requires perfect matching of eyelines, extreme technical skill on the part of the cinematographer and dizzying acts of mental gymnastics on the part of the actor in order to react to a performance that they haven’t given yet. The Devil’s Double ticks all three boxes, and the end result is that there was never a point in the film where I was conscious of the fact that Dominic Cooper must have been talking to thin air. As far as I was concerned, the film starred two actors with an uncanny resemblance and great chemistry.
Cooper’s Uday is fascinating to watch: equal parts terrifying and comedic and one hundred per cent despicable, he rampages through the lives of those around him like a bull in a china shop, grinning around a cigar and dressed like the part of the eighties that history coughed up and tried to hide in a napkin. In contrast, Cooper as Latif isn’t quite so interesting to watch but is definitely a grounding point for the audience to relate to, and his unshakeable dignity and moral code provide a much-needed relief from the excess and depravity of Uday’s lifestyle. It’s a testament to the subtlety of the performances that there’s never any doubt which character is onscreen, even when Latif is “playing” Uday.
The story has a tendency to meander along a bit and in that respect seems much closer to a normal biopic than the makers intended, but it has some great lines and even if the scenes don’t flow together all too smoothly as a sequence of events they stand alone as great pieces of writing. The film builds up to a number of climaxes along the way, which keeps the energy high but also means that the plot keeps going for a while after it probably should have ended.
Director Lee Tamahori has emphatically stated he treated the film as fiction, and somewhat predictably the further it wanders away from the truth and into cliché action movie territory the weaker it becomes. French actress Ludivine Sagnier plays Sarrab, a character included so that the film could have boobs and humping. I’m aware that there was a girl who took an interest in Latif, and her interest lead to Uday shooting at his double and forcing him to flee, but Sarrab just feels shoehorned in here and despite the best efforts of Sagnier and Cooper their forbidden-love subplot isn’t much more than an unwanted distraction.
The ending of the film also feels like it was pulled out of a James Bond movie and is something of a let-down after such a deeply emotional journey; you could leave the cinema about 15 minutes before the end and be a lot richer for the experience.
The Devil’s Double is an engrossing and often traumatic account of Latif Yahia’s experiences that uses an effective balance of fact and fiction to tell a story that’s as absurd as it is true. It’s also a masterclass in subtlety of performance, and Dominic Cooper’s presumably exhausting success in playing both lead roles with such energy and aplomb means that I’ll definitely be seeing this film again.