Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” is a stirringly fantastic adaption of Dostoyevsky’s iconic novella.
It reframes and refocuses the key characters and story beats of Dostoyevsky’s work. Rather than focus primarily on the psychological breakdown of the protagonist and use the medium to sink the audience down with him, Ayoade instead uses the doppelganger as a springboard for thematics. He explores the ways society can subsume one’s identity, and various feelings like loneliness, abandonment, isolation, unrequited love, all done in absurd but relatable ways, anchored by Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasiokowska’s strong performances.
The quirky score suits the film very well. The premise of the story is lunacy, there’s no way an absolute doppelganger of someone could not be recognised by anyone as such, and so easily take over the original person’s life, but it viscerally plays on common and relatable insecurities. So too does the music feel lunatic and impossible (both in the clearly synthesised sections, and touches like the climactic “I Am a Ghost” cue consisting of individually recorded bars layered over each other, as the musicians were unable to play such fast measures coherently in sequence), but also emotionally resonant.
The setting of the film is another layer of this “impossible, yet relatable” aesthetic. It’s a hodge-podge of various technologies and aesthetics that coalesces into a unique, kind of retro steampunk type style that feels timeless in the dull corporate nature of it. There’s some modern touches by implying the company has some sort of NSA-style data tracking aspect to it, but it’s essentially a timeless corporate grind that fits as well with Dostoyevsky’s original setting as with the modern audience’s place of reference. The visuals of the film work so well, not only the art direction, but also the excellent cinematography, communicating the division and duplication at the heart of the protagonist’s story through a lot of clever framing.
The film is so smart about adapting the story beats and characters of the original novella for the first two thirds or so, that it’s a true disappointment when it goes off the rails a bit in the third act. Rather than come together to make some strong thematic point, to present Ayoade’s thesis on all the disparate thematic elements he’d skillfully explored so far, the ending devolves into science-fiction-esque plot mechanics treating the doppelganger on completely literal terms. Not only does this betray much of the best work earlier on in the film, where the lines of reality were much more blurred, it also deviates from the novella’s ending – not inherently an issue at all, but problematic when the majority of the story had followed its basics so closely before then, as the build-up never reaches that natural conclusion. The very last lines of dialogue tie into earlier thematic work and so they do work on some level, but it’s messy and not ambiguous in the thought-provoking way as much as the confusing way.
Still, so much of the film is brilliant, and I very much enjoyed the overall experience. I give it four fried eggs, and a coke.