Issue 45 (2014)

Richard Ayoade: The Double (2013)

reviewed by Connor Doak© 2014

doubleIt would be a stretch to call Richard Ayoade’s The Double an adaptation of Fedor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name. Ayoade alters the setting of The Double from nineteenth-century Russia to a retro-futuristic world, makes significant alterations to the plot, and extends the cast. However, the film retains a Dostoevskian spirit, successfully capturing both the novella’s unsettling portrait of urban modernity and its philosophical inquiry into the issue of identity. In the film, Dostoevsky’s troubled, unassuming clerk Goliadkin becomes office grunt Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). Eisenberg deftly switches between the role of the lonely but likeable Simon James and his successful, swaggering doppelgänger James Simon.

Not content with the few female characters in the novella, Ayoade predictably includes a love interest for Simon, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska); she provides an ethereal feminine presence in an otherwise unforgiving, masculine world. While Dostoevsky’s Goliadkin can only fantasize about the elusive Klara Olsuf’evna, Ayoade depicts a love triangle as the nervous, tongue-tied Simon must compete against his sexually confident double James for Hannah’s affections. Much to the horror of Simon, James also manages to charm his way into bed with his line manager’s daughter Melanie (Yasmin Paige), a brattish gum-popping teenager addicted to violent video games.

Some viewers will find the romance plot rather saccharine and out of keeping with the film’s otherwise dark tone. Nevertheless, Ayoade’s development of the romance plot allows him to foreground the anxieties about masculinity and sexuality that lie just beneath the surface of Dostoevsky’s work. Indeed, Simon’s identity crisis may have its roots in his perceived failure to live up to society’s standards of masculinity, as is suggested by his fascination with the flamboyantly macho hero of The Replicator, the violent, overblown cop show cooked up as standard television fare for the proles in Ayoade’s world. While Simon is powerless to live up to this hyper-masculine image, his cocky double James acts out the fantasies that Simon himself has been repressing. The opportunistic James simultaneously intrigues and repels the audience, not only because he manages to bed multiple women, but also because he successfully curries favor with the old boys’ club of office managers and climbs the greasy pole of promotion in the bureaucracy.

double It is the film’s combination of romantic intrigue and the doppelgänger theme that generates much of the comedy in the film. Although many of the gags are predictable, some succeed as altered versions of jokes found in the original novella. Readers will recall a scene in which Goliadkin visits a restaurant to enjoy a pie, only to find that he is charged for eleven rather than one. As Goliadkin begins to protest, he notices his double at the far end of the room, winking at him as he savors the final morsel of his tenth pie. The film includes a similar scene in which Simon meets Hannah in a restaurant for their first date. When Simon fails to make headway with her, he excuses himself, and swaps places with his more confident double. The smooth-talking James quickly proves irresistible to Hannah, and, in a wonderful moment that pokes fun at the conventions of the rom-com, Ayoade offers a stylized shot of a shower of confetti surrounding the couple locked in an embrace, while the other diners at the restaurant applaud. Simon, humiliated and heartbroken, is left to pick up the check.

doubleSome of the film’s strongest scenes feature Simon and James together: Eisenberg is able to generate a startling chemistry between the two characters even though he is acting both roles. However, the film’s best comedic performance comes from Wallace Shawn, who plays Simon’s and James’s line manager, the redoubtable Mr. Papadopoulos. Shawn performs superbly as the back-slapping superior whose façade of affability barely masks his deep inhumanity towards his subordinates. Such characters are plentiful in Dostoevsky’s depictions of the Tsarist bureaucracy, but Shawn’s Mr. Papadopoulos resonates with modern viewers as well, judging by the number of belly laughs his scenes generated among the audience in the screenings I attended.

Audiences will find echoes of both Kafka and Orwell in the film, as Ayoade has updated The Double to incorporate the twentieth-century dystopian visions that Dostoevsky’s work anticipated. Indeed, the society depicted in the film combines some of the worst flaws of both capitalism and socialism, presenting these in a comic, grotesque form. The personality cult surrounding the Colonel (James Fox), the big cheese at the office, brings to mind Stalin’s Soviet Union or contemporary North Korea. On the other hand, Melanie’s violent video games and the clips from the cop show The Replicator rather bring to mind the 1980’s USA. Much filming actually took place at an abandoned business park near Wokingham, England; the soulless apartment block where Simon and Hannah reside smacks of an urban planning project gone awry.

The soundtrack is similarly eclectic, including memorable offerings from Japan (Kyu Sakamato, Jackey Yoshikawa & His Blue Comets), South Korea (Kim Jung Mi), and American country in a Finnish incarnation (Danny & The Islanders). These catchy songs of the 1960s and 1970s feel canned to a contemporary audience, as though the denizens of Ayoade’s world are being fed a diet of sentimental music as a palliative to counter the drudgery of their everyday existence. A sharp contrast to this style is provided by Andrew Hewitt’s menacing orchestral score, which accompanies many of the film’s most dramatic moments.

doubleOne criticism leveled against The Double is that it draws too heavily on previous films. Ryan Gilbey (2014) in The New Statesman calls the movie a “case of homage overload,” arguing Ayoade’s film is derivative of classics such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (Le Locataire, 1976), as well as the work of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki. While these influences are present, we should not underestimate how Dostoevsky’s novella itself also shaped the film. The film’s dim lighting and its yellow-green color palette in particular create an oppressive Dostoevskian mood. When Goliadkin describes how “the sullied green, smoke-stained dusty walls of his tiny little room glanced familiarly at him” (Dostoevskii 1972:109), those lines could well serve as a set description for several scenes in the film.

Ayoade’s sound effects also owe a debt to Dostoevsky. The novella describes how on a November evening the wind howled against the lampposts, creating an “endless squeaking, jangling concert, so familiar to every inhabitant of St. Petersburg” (Dostoevskii 1972: 355). The film’s disturbing industrial soundscape echoes the eerie metallic sounds of Dostoevsky’s city.

Nigel Andrews (2014), writing for The Financial Times, dismisses Ayoade’s The Double as being “a long way from Dostoevsky.” Such an assessment is mistaken. Ayoade certainly did not set out to create a faithful cinematic rendition of Dostoevsky’s novella. However, the film’s stellar cast, experimental camera work and psychological inquiry do justice to its rich source material, while its humorous dialogue and tight plotting guarantee its accessibility. Ultimately, the film’s greatest strength may lie in its ability to make Dostoevsky speak anew to a broad contemporary audience.

Connor Doak
University of Bristol

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Works Cited

Andrews, Nigel. (2014). “The Double—film review.” The Financial Times. 3 April.

Dostoevskii, F.M. (1972) Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh. Tom pervyi. Bednye liudi. Povesti i rasskazy. 1846-1847. Leningrad: Nauka.

Gilbey, Ryan. (2014). “A case of homage overload: The Double by Richard Ayoade.” The New Statesman. 3 April.

The Double, UK, 2013
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Richard Ayoade
Script: Richrad Ayoade, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Avi Korine
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor, Chris O’Dowd, Wallace Shawn, James Fox, Paddy Considine
Music: Andrew Hewitt
DoP: Erik Wilson
Editor: Nick Fenton
Production Design: David Crank
Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran
Producers: Amina Dasmal, Robin C. Fox
Production: Alcove Entertainment, Attercop Productions, BFI.

Richard Ayoade: The Double (2013)

reviewed by Connor Doak© 2014

Updated: 04 Jul 14