*minor spoilers ahead (in the last paragraph)
The first time I took notice of Dominic Cooper was on Broadway as the wild card element of “The History Boys,” Alan Bennett’s chronicle of a prep school year in ‘80s England. It was a showy part, Dakin, the charming rogue who all the other schoolboys wished they could be as rebellious, but one that that actually felt more dangerous when Cooper had to reveal the less envious aspects of Dakin’s character. Though Cooper reprised the role for the film version, the emotional rawness of the performance appeared to have stayed on the stage as the arc was truncated to the more traditional role of a bad boy.
In “The Devil’s Double,” which features what is bound to be Cooper’s breakout role on film, he plays a very bad boy once more as Uday Hussein, the elder son of Saddam that the filmmakers would have you believe was as evil as his pops without the discipline that comes with age. But rather than be burdened with the need to humanize Uday, Cooper is allowed to balance him out in the dual role of Latif, the schoolmate of Uday whose striking resemblance to the Iraqi dictator’s son puts him in the unwanted first position to become his body double, an assignment that not only requires Latif to sacrifice himself in the line of fire, but also his moral compass if he wants to mimic the monster.
What follows is a tale of decadence so extravagant that it would make Tony Montana lift his head from a tray of cocaine. Armed with his gold-plated gun, a harem of bored-looking women lounging by the pool in silk robes and closets full of Brioni, Versace and Armani shirts, Uday cavorts in a Xanadu of his creation while war rages on outside the gates of Saddam’s palace. Yet there’s an urgency in his voice when he tells an associate after first meeting Latif, “I have to have him,” setting up the crux of director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas’ character study as Latif, even after he’s hired, is the one thing Uday clearly will never be able to own, body and soul.
It’s a take on history that’s grotesque figuratively and, more often than not, literally, based on the memoir of the real-life Latif, but openly acknowledged by Tamahori as a complete work of fiction. However, the truth that does come out is in Cooper’s performance, where the actor has the license to reach the full extremes of his considerable range as both the brash Uday and the meek Latif, disappearing into both roles while clearly differentiating them from each other. Surrounded by opulence, Cooper remains the center of attention, the wheels always turning as Uday toys with Latif’s sense of decency while Latif plots his escape.
As if Cooper’s glow wasn’t enough, Tamahori has added a glossy sheen to the proceedings that would seem to be the residue of the forgettable franchise placeholders he’s helmed in recent years such as “xXx: State of the Union” and “Die Another Day,” at once piling on to the overindulgence of the entire affair and trivializing any aspirations of being taken seriously. Yet it’s a welcome return to form of the wild abandon of the director’s best film to date, his 1994 drama “Once Were Warriors.” (Though I’d usually refrain from mentioning a filmmaker’s personal life, his arrest in 2006 for solicitation while dressed in drag let my mind wander as to how “Double” might’ve benefitted from personal insight into living another life.)
By comparison, other aspects of “The Devil’s Double” feel slightly dimmer. In the only other role worth noting besides Uday, Latif and a suspiciously Caucasian Saddam (played by Aussie Philip Quast), Ludivine Sagnier can never quite overcome the weakly developed role of Uday’s tempting mistress Sarrab, most memorable for wearing a parade of purple and pink wigs and a sex scene interspersed with the bombing of Kuwait City that’s intentionally sleazier than the one Steven Spielberg similarly executed in “Munich.”
It’s mostly coincidental that when she takes the place of Uday as Latif’s primary scene partner in the final third “The Devil’s Double” begins to wheeze towards the finish line, but the character and the film both suffer from hitting the same wall of reality that the audience may be more familiar with, as the film takes place in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and Uday’s death occurred in 2003. As a result, a truly satisfying resolution is slightly out of reach when there’s less room to play fast and loose with accuracy, yet there’s no denying that this was one historical footnote well worth exploiting.
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