Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double is probably only a three-and-a-half star movie, but it’s pushed into four-star territory thanks to the performances of Dominic Cooper as both Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday and and Uday’s double, Latif Yahia. And I say performances because Cooper really delivers two very different ones: The raving psychotic Uday and the frequently horrified, yet completely trapped Latif. With one exception, you never have any confusion about which character is onscreen—even after the “plastic surgery” where they remove the painfully obvious appliance from Latif’s nose. That sole exception is in one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, where Latif gets so worked up giving a ranting speech that he seems to threaten to actually become his unwanted mentor.
The film—quite obviously—is fact-based, but it would be a huge mistake to take it as a history lesson in any real sense. Sure, there was an Uday Hussein and he was, by all accounts, completely depraved, degenerate and insane. And, yes, there still is a Latif Yahia and it is, in fact, on his fact-based novel that the film is based. By the time the story reached the screen, it had been fictionalized twice. Certain things are clearly here for both dramatic effect and as part of Yahia’s desire to present himself in the best light possible. It’s not fact so much as it takes facts, throws in some wishful thinking and some speculation in order to create a deliberately lurid melodrama. That’s how it should be judged, and, judged on that score, it’s mostly successful.
In the film, Latif is a soldier who is first asked to be Uday’s double, then tortured and finally blackmailed into taking the job to protect his family. This perhaps redefines the idea of an “offer he can’t refuse,” but that’s probably deliberate because the film paints Uday as a gangster—and it does the same, to some extent, to his father Saddam (Philip Quast). It just happens that the Husseins run a country, rather than a crime syndicate. In fact, quite a few people have likened the presentation of Uday to the Al Pacino character in Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface. The comparison is not without merit, though I’d say Uday wins in the raging-lunatic department.
Once Latif is inside the inner circle of Uday’s world, the film turns into a kind of descent into hell—but a hell that Latif is incapable of doing anything about. He can only keep his mouth shut and be onhand when it’s necessary to step into the role of Uday—usually when the situation would be dangerous for the real Uday. A great deal of the time, he functions as Uday’s whipping boy, being dragged along to nightclubs and parties to watch Uday flaunt his power to rape or murder whomever he pleases whenever he pleases. At the same time, it’s undeniable that Latif is living in unthinkable—and grotesquely tasteless nouveau riche—luxury. This isn’t stressed, but the undercurrent of the appeal is there.
The film is on sure footing when it wallows in its melodramatic excesses—and it spends a lot of time there—assuming you have a taste for melodramatic excess. It fares less well in its more serious efforts. Oh, it can be quite chilling in its unflinching depiction of cruelty and brutality, but the whole plot involving a dangerous romance between Latif and Uday’s current main lady friend, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), is neither convincing, nor seemingly thought out. Attempts at making her sympathetic never quite work, and you end up feeling that she’s mostly in the film simply because of the idea that “there’s always a girl in a picture.” It doesn’t really matter much, though, because the film is really Cooper’s show all the way—and in that it succeeds. Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language.