Truth is almost always stranger than fiction, but rarely scarier. This is certainly the case with The Devil’s Double, a deeply alarming film about the tormented life of Latif Yahia, the Iraqi Army lieutenant who looked so much like Saddam Hussein’s son Uday that he was summoned to Baghdad in the days leading up to Desert Storm and assigned the dreaded role of “fiday”, or “body double.” What followed was a life fouled by corruption and madness at the hands of a lunatic. The centerpiece is a dual performance by popular British actor Dominic Cooper both powerful and nuanced.
Latif does not want the job, but if he refuses to stand in for the psychotic Uday his entire family will be executed. The impersonation is so accurate and the resemblance so uncanny, even Saddam sometimes fails to recognize him, and in addition to the danger of death every time the sun rises, there are also perks. Overnight, Latif goes from filthy soldier to Brioni suits, Versace silk pajamas and Rolex watches. He also trades K-rations for lavish banquets of caviar and champagne that turn into X-rated orgies. But while enduring both the praise and punishment dished out by the dictator’s sadistic son, he also witnesses some of the most criminal atrocities known to man. Saddam Hussein had two sons who were vital cogs in his reign of terror—Uday and his younger brother Qusay, both executed in 2003— but Uday was the homicidal psychopath of the duo. During his days in Saddam’s palace Latif witnessed depravity, debauchery, immorality, genocide and worse. Every attempt to escape failed, while Uday continued to thrive with his father’s protection—kidnapping, torturing, and raping underage schoolgirls he plucked off the street, choking on cocaine and wallowing in pornographic exploits with both sexes. While American bombs get closer, he even ravages a virginal bride on her wedding day, driving the disgraced girl to suicide.
Ultimately, Latif makes the near-fatal mistake of falling for Uday’s favorite palace concubine (Ludivine Sagnier) while trying to save her. Her eventual betrayal is final proof that in Iraq, the moon is not the only harsh mistress. The film’s weakness is a choppily edited script by Michael Thomas that exploits the perversions while ignoring the politics, reducing history to a few newsreel shots of George Bush and the first Gulf War. New Zealand director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of sex and violence, but leaves everything out about the political arena where it took place. Iraq was a country in Hell. The Devil’s Double was shot at a Radisson resort in Malta. Consequently, it plays more like Caligula than The Hurt Locker.
Still, you won’t find yourself yawning. It’s a great double stretch for an actor and Mr. Cooper plays both the smoldering Latif and the bombastic Uday with combustible energy. Childish, savage and impulsive, Uday has buck teeth and combed flat hair, while Latif is more like an Oxford student on a Middle Eastern holiday. Some objections have been voiced about an Anglo-Saxon actor playing an Iraqi, but who cares? Stripped half-naked, smoking cigars, waving guns and strutting like a peacock, Mr. Cooper gives a dazzling display of self-assurance as Uday and a remarkable display of restraint as Latif. The Devil’s Double is eons removed from his 2006 breakthrough performance as a cocky prep school lothario in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, and a far cry from his usual fluff like Mamma Mia! and Captain America. Without the ballast he provides, this would be an action epic without the stature and a runaway train without the brakes.
THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE
Running time 108 minutes
Written by Michael Thomas
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Starring Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi