Man in the mirror: Jesse Eisenberg as Simon/James
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A case of homage overload: The Double by Richard Ayoade

Two films into his directing career, the former star of the IT Crowd  has yet to exhibit an original voice.

Watching a lot of movies is not a prerequisite for being a good director. In unusual instances, it can even be an impediment. Richard Ayoade is a case in point. As a comic performer, this actor-turned-film-maker has a distinctive style: he mixed the naive and the knowing to sophisticated effect in The IT Crowd, in which he played Moss, king of the nerds, stiff and straight as an ironing board, with a lopsided wedge of haywire hair.

Two films into his directing career, he has yet to exhibit a comparably original voice. Both the coming-of-age comedy Submarine (2010) and its superficially darker follow-up, a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, suffer from a severe case of homage overload. While I am overjoyed for Ayoade that he has seen such films as Brazil, Eraserhead, The Tenant and the collected works of Aki Kaurismäki, a 90-minute tour of his DVD collection is no substitute for a film. Casting is one area where The Double is strong. As Simon, the office drone so ineffectual that automatic doors fail to register his presence, Jesse Eisenberg is ideal. He’s so pale that a pint of milk would look like Tizer alongside him, so jittery that he surely stammers even in his thoughts. Simon is already a nervous wreck before witnessing a man in the opposite building jump to his death. There is also his agony at lusting after a demure, icicle-like colleague (Mia Wasikowska) to little noticeable effect and discovering that she may have played some part in the leaper’s demise. (It turns out that she told him, “Stop fucking following me!” the day before his death. “Do you think there’s some connection?” she asks innocently.)

Then Simon is spooked to find that his exact double, James, has begun working in the office. Even worse, James starts passing off Simon’s achievements as his own and currying favour with the boss (Wallace Shawn). James is also played by Eisenberg, though a supreme gag here would have been to cast the similarly pallid and angular Michael Cera; after all, both actors have remarked publicly that they are forever being mistaken for one another. Cera’s ongoing campaign to muss up his geeky persona began a few years ago with Youth in Revolt (2009), in which he played both a nerd and his suave alter ego: exactly what Eisenberg is called on to do here. Then again, Youth in Revolt was breezy fun, whereas The Double has its sights set stubbornly on being art. If there is a faster route for a director to end up with egg on his face, it has escaped me temporarily.

The movie is glazed with a feeble sense of dread, nowhere more so than in the area of production design, which has a retro-futuristic aesthetic: sickly green lighting, exposed ducts and pipes, technology with an antiquated spin (such as the photocopier equipped with clunky dials). Framed pictures of the omniscient Colonel (James Fox) recall Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four but even in its homages the movie is derivative – Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian fantasy Brazil went by the working title of 1984½. The problem, as with everything in The Double, is not that the influences are transparent but that they are all the film has. Those of a forgiving spirit might take this for an in-joke, as if Ayoade were making the movie itself into a double, a 24-frames-per-second facsimile.

Even generous viewers might wonder at the film’s preference for effect over feeling, affectation over depth. Ayoade can shoot a garishly coloured room flickering under a broken strip-light as well as the next David Lynch fan but where is the palpable menace required in any cinematic nightmare? We never discover why it is such a bad deal for Simon to meet his doppelgänger; the film wouldn’t be noticeably different if the interloper were not James but, say, any hunk with designs on Simon’s girl. Ayoade is not slow to pile on the zaniness (a suicide squad assesses Simon as a “maybe” and there are visits to a nursing home where the residents carry weapons). He also recruits his comedy chums (Chris Morris, Chris O’Dowd) for unremarkable cameos. Taking this story of the uncanny and stripping it of any eeriness must count as his most striking achievement, as well as his most perverse.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist