Released on an extremely limited basis by Lionsgate prior to its upcoming November 21 DVD release, The Devil’s Double isn’t the fascinating abomination I was prepared to see based on reviews I’d read. Quite the contrary, it’s a well-made thriller boasting mesmerizing performances by Dominic Cooper as both Uday Hussein and his body double.
Although it’s based on true events, director Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day) went to great pains to make everyone understand that it’s a gangster movie, not an authentic biopic. Certainly, it has its share of excesses, but no more than you’d see in a contemporary R-rated horror film. Besides, its real-life subject was a vicious brute who didn’t hesitate to indulge his sadistic desires.
In the film, Uday orders Lieutenant Latif Yahia become his fiday, or body double. As children, they’d been schoolmates together, and Uday remembered that people had always commented on their physical similarities. When Latif refuses, Uday imprisons him and threatens to harm his family, breaking him down until he finally agrees. After some plastic surgery and some coaching, Latif is ready to step into the role, appearing at public events deemed too risky for Uday, and dodging assassins’ bullets.
Since his family has been told he’s dead and Uday considers him to be his personal property, Latif loses all interest in living. Only when he begins to realize the depth of Uday’s depravity and mental illness does he begin to fight back, even taking his employer’s mistress as his own.
Cooper, best known for The History Boys and (yikes) Mamma Mia, finally gets a chance to shine in these dual roles. Although helped along by some makeup and a truly horrendous dental appliance, he does an excellent job delineating the two characters, especially with his eyes. Latif regards the world (and Uday) with disgust and distrust, while Uday comes off at first as a Jerry Lewis character. That effect doesn’t last long, though, when he reveals his taste for drugs, violent sex and general mayhem. He’s a spoiled brat—a dangerous spoiled brat.
Raad Rawi as also good as Menum, Uday’s “handler,” tasked with keeping his crazed charge under control while making sure Latif does his job. He is, in fact, just as trapped as Latif, who at one point calls him “a good man in a bad job.” With her oval face and striking blue eyes, French actress Ludivine Sagnier (A Girl Cut in Two) is an odd choice as Sarrab, Uday’s mistress, but she does fine.
Award-winning stage actor Philip Quast certainly looks the part as Saddam, and there’s a twisted “like father, like son” moment when, after Uday overdoses on sleeping pills, he bursts into his hospital room and, furious at his weakness, threatens to cut off his genitals. Jamie Harding, as brother Qusay, doesn’t have many scenes, but a welcome moment of humor occurs when Uday calls his brother on the phone to praise Latif’s performance as him, but Qusay isn’t convinced. “For one thing, he’s sober,” he tells his brother. “And for another, he’s not foaming at the mouth.”
The film takes place prior to and during the first Gulf War, and the Malta locations are certainly evocative of what this environment may have been like. The set designs are also good, bringing the lavish Hussein palace and other environs to life. Strangely, two separate scenes in the same nightclub have the same song—”You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”—playing in the background. Maybe that was crazy Uday’s favorite tune?
The violence isn’t as pervasive as I’d been led to believe, but when it does come, it’s shocking and effective. In one scene, Uday, furious at being called “queer” by one of his father’s friends, dispatches the man in a way that would do Tony Montana proud. And when he rapes a young bride on the afternoon of her wedding, she jumps to her death, landing in the middle of the wedding party. Artistic license? Well, yes. But it also makes for compelling drama.
It’s puzzling that Lionsgate would put The Devil’s Double into such a limited release. There have been far inferior films hogging theater screens this past summer. And Cooper’s performance is a real knockout.