15 August 2011


Can we please collectively admit that Brian DePalma's Scarface is an overlong, excessive embarrassment of a film, appropriated by hipsters and mock-gangstas as a masterpiece? With the most erroneous pull-quote since "Bourne Meets Inception", The Devil's Double arrives in cinemas, touted as "Scarface In Arabia". It's a comparison that will attract fans of that film, but it's not a comparison that holds up.

There's a better film to talk about here. The Devil's Double features Dominic Cooper as both the devil and his double, charting a period of Iraq's history in which Saddam Hussein's sadistic and hedonistic son, Uday, romped around the country, being a thoroughly hateful and shitty human being. Half-remembered from his schooldays with Uday, Latif is an Iraqi solder withdrawn from service to become Uday's "fiday", or body double, with all of the horrors of his lifestyle included.

The sold-out screening I attended certainly shows that the marketing is putting bums on seats, with the solid gold Cooper on the poster suggesting some of the excess ascribed to Tony Montana. Beyond a couple of mountains of cocaine spotted on Uday's desk and a montage here and there, it's not a bit like Scarface. It owes much more to The Last King of Scotland, in which a young British doctor was unwittingly ingratiated into a monstrous dictator's entourage. The difference is that Idi Amin is portrayed as genial and charming, early on in that film, where Uday Hussein is not.

But to compare it to the story of Scarface, in which a rising star in the criminal underworld succumbs to his own greed, is to overlook the fact that we're following a sympathetic character. Latif is essentially a decent person thrown into an insane situation, extinguishing his own identity to satisfy the whims of a total psychopath. He's not seduced by the staggering, hideous lucre of Uday's lifestyle, and he demonstrably has some kind of moral grounding at any given point in the film, especially at the beginning. So, he's a more interesting protagonist than Tony Montana, who is kind of a twat when we meet him, and goes on to become a bigger, richer twat.

This film's big rich twat is a position easily filled by Uday himself. In the beginning, Uday's toadies apologise that Latif was only the closest they could find to a fiday that resembled him. Maybe that's meant to give you an idea of how spoilt Uday is, because Latif is at least as close in appearance to him that they're both played by Dominic Cooper. The calibre of his overall performance in the film splits somewhere in the middle. If, somehow, both of his roles were eligible for awards recognition, it would be his supporting role, as Uday, for which he'd garner the best notices.

Uday is a shrieking man-child who occasionally sounds like that meerkat from the car insurance adverts, and yet Cooper's screen presence is still enough to make him intimidating and unpredictable. The film is "based on a true story", so you suspect that Latif might make it out alive, and yet the film is structured in such a way that allows the madness of Cooper's performance to make you uncertain. Still, a quick post-film Wikipedia search shows that the film took at least a little artistic licence with the truth of the events, seemingly to make the story more cinematic.

Whether director Lee Tamahori knows it or not, the power of the film doesn't lie in its excessive shock tactics. It might become a tad repetitive in its depiction of horrible violence, but as a portrait of a monstrous human being- a man who makes his father Saddam look relatively sane and fair-minded by the time the closing credits roll- it is very compelling indeed. A lot of the film rests on Cooper's shoulders, and his success in distinguishing the two lead characters, to the point that you forget they're played by the same person, is also the film's success.

The Devil's Double isn't subtle or restrained, but it's not stupid either. The colour grading gives everything a golden sheen, but also a healthy appreciation that not all that glitters is gold. The film doesn't revel in the excess or the violence of the story, and the stunning performance by Dominic Cooper in each role sets up an opposition that makes Uday Hussein accountable within its own structure, rather than glorifying the bastard. It may not come to an entirely satisfying conclusion, but it oozes that necessity of having to be seen to be believed.

The Devil's Double is now showing in cinemas nationwide. By the way, I'm not saying you won't like it if you're a fan of Scarface- which, apparently, most of you are.
If you've seen The Devil's Double, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Adler Ng said...

Dominic Cooper is one to watch, so is the movie, I guess. by the way it sounds, it can be intriguing, to say the least.