The Devil's Double

Play the part or suffer the consequences.

Poster art for The Devil's DoubleA special pleasure of the movie medium is watching actors play double or multiple roles: Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Peter Sellers doing three characters in Dr. Strangelove, Alec Guinness doing eight in Kind Hearts And Coronets – the list is long and goes back to the movies’ earliest days. In this latest example, Dominic Cooper is both Uday Hussein, the notorious son of the Iraqi dictator, and Uday’s former classmate, Latif Yahia, a peaceable Iraqi army lieutenant forced into soul-smothering servitude as Uday’s ‘fiday,’ or body double. The dual aspect of Mr. Cooper’s performance is immensely enjoyable, and the film, directed by Lee Tamahori –from Michael Thomas’s adaptation of an autobiographical book by Mr. Yahia – leaves no doubt about Uday’s vileness. Its star creates a new pinup for the gallery of human perversion, a coke-snorting psychopath with a piping voice who fairly vibrates with delight at the depth of his own depravity.

That’s the constant in Uday’s psyche, even though his mood may change from one second to the next. Instead of evil’s banality, Mr. Cooper gives us the elation generated by Uday’s unmoored id as he plucks innocent schoolgirls off a Baghdad street, defiles a bride on her wedding day, or slaughters his father’s whoremaster in a delirium of displaced rage. Those who admired Mr. Cooper’s work as Peter Sarsgaard’s dashing friend and business partner in An Education – I called it ‘a supporting performance with star quality’ – could not have imagined his achievement here. His remarkable range includes the subtlety of his scenes as Latif as well as Uday’s malign flamboyance. (Saddam Hussein appears occasionally, making oracular pronouncements, then vanishes.)

‘You are asking me to extinguish myself,’ Latif tells Uday at the outset. That’s true enough, though Latif tries to function as the conscience of the unconscionable man he has the bad luck to resemble. But far from extinguishment, Latif also starts to feel – from the first moment he bursts out of a hotel room in Uday’s character – the liberation that amorality can bring. The movie isn’t deep, or particularly intricate; it doesn’t play all that much with the potential for mistaken identities, and the cruelty it depicts becomes repetitive or, worse still, desensitizing. But The Devil’s Double does give us indelible images of Uday’s decadence – the filmmakers say they’re understated – and a double dip of dazzling acting.

– Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

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