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The Double

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Richard Ayoade
Cert 15, 93 mins

Simon James (The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg) inhabits a bleak world of fog-shrouded housing blocks connected by underground railways to his office work place. He knows people at work, his family, maybe a few neighbours and no-one else. A faceless bureaucrat scarcely noticed in his office, Simon is told by at least one colleague that he's barely a person. His immediate superior Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) regards him as a waste of space. On paper, he has worked out schemes to make the office more efficient but can't get his superiors to look at them. He fancies photocopier operator Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) but is too shy to ask her out. Since she lives in the block opposite, he obsessively watches her from his own apartment through a telescope instead.

When high flying, new recruit James Simon (Eisenberg again) is introduced to the office; no-one else seems to notice that the two men are physically identical (possibly because Simon James goes largely unnoticed). James Simon's personality is, as their mirrored names suggest, diametrically opposed to that of Simon James - the new arrival is a people person, a womaniser, a social climber. James cuts a deal with Simon to help romance Hannah in return for Simon doing James' office work. But James is an unscrupulous manipulator who has no qualms about passing off Simon's innovative ideas as his own for personal advancement. Moreover, when Simon fails to follow through with Hannah, James takes advantage and becomes involved with her.

A terrifying vision playing into deep-seated human fears of failing to meet our potential and our inadequacy compared to our fellows, its psychic landscape - suicide, failure in love, humiliation in the office, the threat of redundancy - seems to perfectly complement the physical landscape of claustrophobic interiors and constant dull weather. Yet, while the film appears to be about a man and his double, it makes just as much sense if the two characters are in fact two parts of the one character: the downtrodden office worker who dreams of being a success and invents a character in his own head to fulfil those dreams. When Simon punches James and draws blood: Simon bleeds too, suggesting the pair are somehow connected. Eisenberg is extraordinary in his two, visually identical role, with the introvert and the extrovert both instantly recognisable with each remaining distinct.

The British director Ayoade's compelling debut Submarine (2010) is a compelling exploration of teenage angst. This new film deals in angst too, but in an adult workplace environment. Both eschew naturalism in favour of a more surreal aesthetic. The screenwriter Avi Korine's source for The Double is the Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, which Ayoade's sensibilities present as - depending on how you want to read the film - a parallel world dystopian nightmare or warring personalities vying for control of the protagonist's mind. As you're watching, the narrative seems to shift from the one reading to the other and back again. Yet, somehow, it all comes together: The Double grabs from the get-go and never loses its grip.