The reason that this aspect of the film triumphed over any of its stylistic loans is a scene near the beginning where the protagonist is hauled away from sight of his workplace's patriarch and all he can think to say in his panic at the humiliation is: "It's not me. It's not me." That's before the double appears. It's straight out of the source material.
Dostoyevsky's novella Dvoynik (or, in English, The Double) is a stark and nightmarish approximation of what would come to be known (half a century later) as a psychotic episode. Mr Golyadkin, a lowly clerk in one of the many monstrous government bureaucracies of Tsarist Russia, fantasises impossibly above his station. He is so obsessed by his perceived injustice of his place in the rigid order that, after a series of crushing defeats by his own hand, he is confronted with a far more winsome version of himself who lives the life he fantasised for himself. At one point, during one of his crazy shopping sprees, Golyadkin's hire coach passes that of his Department's head, an unassailable military aristocrat who can see that the insect-like clerk is wagging work. Golyadkin presses his face against the carriage window and feebly intones: "It's not me. It's not me. It's someone strikingly like me."
That combination of horror, pathos and screaming comedy is what makes any Dostoyevsky novel worth the long journey from preface to last page. While there was a growing theme of preter-psychology in European literature in the nineteenth century, no culture concentrated on it with a more falconian eye than the Russians. There in the pages of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Turgeniev, Chekov, Tolstoy and Goncharov among others, the patient reader will find some jawdroppingly accurate descriptions of extreme psychological states. This was helped in no small part by the social effect of westernisation which in Russia's case meant taking it from a feudal agrarian hell into an even more punishingly stratified urban hell, educating just enough of its citizens to give them a sense of privilege but no mobility to go with it. When Dostoyevsky added the subtitle A Poem of St Petersberg to The Double he wasn't evoking place the way Dickens might London or Diderot Paris, he was referring to a psyche.
Wait isn't this a film review? You're so right. I do beg your pardon. I seem to have wandered on to a hobby horse of mine. And er ... Richard Ayaode's film of this story is primarily told from its source. There is a lot of Dostoyevsky in this tale. It happens to be one of my favourites by that name among my favourite authors and I've long wished for a good screen adaptation. I always thought Martin Scorsese would get there first with his extraordinary skill at expressing the horrors of social interaction with an eye to edgy comedy but here it is told without the top hats and frock coats of its original setting, in concentrated form, allowed to spread into flavour.
So, Simon James works in a nameless office as a clerk among a lot of other clerks, wedged into a human battery cubicle. When a faceless commuter demands he give up his seat in an otherwise empty carriage, Simon does so as it's just easier. He's in unrequited love with the pixieish girl who works at the copy centre of his office but can never break through to talk to her. She lives within telescope sight of his flat's window, staying home at night idling away at home made arts and crafts, leaving red ink or blood fingerprints on the window.
Simon can never get straight into work. His electronic ID card is faulty and he has to go through an annoying sign-in routine that a guard who still doesn't recognise him after seven years compels him to do. Work is shapeless and futile. Only the golden Hannah from copying can change this. Simon's opportunity comes up after the two witness a suicide at their building, the aftermath of which establishes that there is an epidemic of them and a chance to have a coffee with Hannah. This goes well and they plan to meet up at the dowdy work ball the next night. The same kind of barrier he is plagued by every work morning prevents him from getting in as she is waiting for him sullenly by a pillar. A chance allows him entry but he is frogmarched out by security. On the way home he is startled to see someone identical to him walking up to an apartment opposite his building. The next day the cobwebby old clerks are called together to welcome a promising young man into the office. Simon sees his doppleganger and faints.
From this point the plot progresses in close approximation to the original with the initial mutually beneficial friendship between the two developing into earnest competition and on toward total breakdown. This can only work if the central dual performance can cut it. An early scene featuring Jesse Eisenberg as both Simon James and James Simon is simply the pair of them walking down a corridor. Their faces are what each might consider a blank expression but it's blank in-character and each is distinct from the other despite being dressed identically. While not necessarily a miracle of acting it is nevertheless an impressive show and indicative of the importances the performances have in this film that has been derided for being too kooky to relate to. While some spots (hello Chris Morris) are overcooked the acting across the board shifts between whimsy and grounded realism so constantly that it is the former that assumes the latter rather than the whackiness threatening the naturalism. The now ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska, who must hold her own against Eisenberg's actor's dream role, and come out an equal, gets a tellingly far greater range of character than Saorise Ronan's recent wasted presence in Grand Budapest Hotel (or, just quietly Dostoyevsky would have given her) and bears it with customary strength and lack of affect.
And this is where I'll mention Brazil. The interrupted electronics of Terry Gilliam's masterpiece are here in abundance. The bureacratic fantasia of the central figure's dusty office might also be invoked but really what Ayaode has done beyond a simple bow to the earlier film and appropriated its look and those things that influenced Gilliam for the pursuit of the tale. The incandescent breathlessness of the interiors, the eastern bloc dowdiness of the cafes and office parties, the battery-like towerblocks are not just Gilliam but an effective visual bridge between page and screen. Ayaode makes it difficult to place the action in a specific locale (the Japanese 60s pop songs, the odd quiltwork of clothing styles and technology) which is much more in line with Dostoyevsky's subtitle evokng the city that was really a state of mind. If you like, he is calling Gilliam to mind in the same way as Dostoyevsky emulated his stylistic forebear Nikolai Gogol, an influence he never shook (nor appeared to aspire to shake).
Ayaode moves the tale at a clip and alters the ending from the source in order to concentrate on the rivalry and self-combat he has already developed in divergence from Dostoyevsky. Some might find the final scenes a little hasty or pat but like the final lines of a good short story, its plain last words contain big echoes. Those echoes (you'll know them when you hear them) carry the reason for making this film at this time. That's more than I can say for most of what I see in a cinema ... at this time.