As evidenced by the continuing popularity from the histories of Suetonius on down to the modern tabloid, bad behavior among the rich, famous, and/or powerful is a source of endless fascination for the rest of us. That being the case, there is a built-in magnet for THE DEVILS DOUBLE, based on the life of Iraqi Latif Yahia, a man whose fate turned on his startling resemblance to Uday Hussein, the psychotic son of Saddam known for random violence, rape, and other forms of mayhem.
Saddam was known to have doubles to foil assassination attempts and to make him seem to be everywhere at once. Uday, a man who made enemies, wanted one too. Dominic Cooper essays both roles and with the help of a dental prosthetic, clever camera tricks, and his acting that is its own class of special effect, the two men are two distinct entities. Even when wearing the prosthetic that gives Latif Udays gopher-toothed grin, it is easy to tell them apart. In one truly remarkable moment, Latif, working as though his life depends on it because it does, looks in a mirror and attempts to ape the grin and fails. Its not that he fails, its the way he fails. The simulacrum of Udays grin falls short by a hairs breadth, but its the hairs breadth of a sane mane unable to fathom the psychosis that drives the grin he attempting to copy. Its a tiny moment, but emblematic of the excellent work Cooper displays, Uday a walking hair-trigger, Latif making no sudden moves that will get him or his family into trouble while pretending perfect calm. During a sudden summons from Hussein senior, the tension in his very sinews is palpable. Its a shame that the script is not worthy of him.
The story begins with Udays savageness, Latifs acquiescence, and stays pretty much in that place for the next two-thirds of the film. Uday does something very bad. Latif disapproves, Uday gets annoyed and threatens bodily harm only to soften up after inflicting it. It is what Latif is acquiescing to, abductions of schoolgirls, a wrong comment leading to murder at an otherwise swanky party in Udays tackily over-decorated palace, and more from the full catalogue of debauchery that rivals that of Caligula if Caligula had a fleet of fast cars and a machine gun. There is an element of voyeuristic temptation involved watching Papa Hussein deal with his clearly insane offspring, and a different, but equally compelling temptation to know more about the way Uday was humored rather than kept in check by the squadron of people whose only task was to keep an eye on him. It bogs down quickly, but with enough eye-popping details, and a career-making turn by Cooper, to make it seem like its going somewhere. By the time it does, its too late to make this a great piece of writing, or even relevant as a cautionary tale despite clips of the Iran-Iraq War and Bush I declaring war on Iraqs incursion into Kuwait, and a clip of Dick Cheney seconding the motion.
There is another temptation to draw parallels between Uday swaggering around and the Pacino version of SCARFACE. There is blood-letting and gunfire aplenty, both dispensed with little thought and no repercussions. There is in the way Uday torments Latif with threats and promises that he will never let him go and the follows it up with telling him that he loves him, that makes it no stretch at all to expect him to next address his double as his little friend. And something of a disappointment that he doesnt. Its also a disappointment that Ludivine Sagnier, as Udays unwilling girlfriend who may or may not have fallen for Latif, cant seem to have her makeup applied properly. The eyeliner doesnt match, the lipstick bleeds. Perhaps its how the character wore makeup, perhaps the bleeding lipstick and eye makeup that looks like shes had a beating is meant to be a metaphor. Either way, it doesnt work cinematically. And neither does THE DEVILS DOUBLE.