By Emily Muna
I had seen the film posters for The Devil’s Double, the new film about Uday Hussein, son of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, plastered around the London underground. Looking at the poster, I imagined it some kind of comedy.
"Have you heard about the new film coming out, about Uday?" I asked my grandmother, who escaped Saddam’s regime with my mum and uncles in the late seventies. I didn’t need to say his full name. She knew who I was talking about. "They said they had to tone it down. It’s an 18, but they had to tone it down, because the reality was even more violent and disturbing."
My grandma put her cup of tea down on the white ceramic saucer. "I remember it."
"Was he really that violent?"
"He used to pick up girls in his sports car and rape them. He was absolutely mad. I remember all the stories, all the rumours, I remember his body double. He was a gangster, he was a thug. He definitely had some deep underlying mental health problems. But then what do you expect, coming from that family?"
"Was Qusay the same?"
"He was the same as the rest of them... but he was the more sane one. Uday was just..." She waved her hand around. Long fingered and white, well lined after years of worry and stress. "He was so bad even Saddam had to tell him to calm down."
She didn’t tell me anymore. She didn’t need to. I had heard enough stories while growing up about the man who dominated a whole country through fear and violence. My grandfather told me once that his friends and colleagues, Iraq’s academic and literary elite, met him at a party. Saddam was surrounded by the intelligentsia, the most educated and well-read people in the country, and all he could talk about was how he could kill a man with his bare hands. One of my grandfather’s comrades and friends in the Iraqi community in London, a doctor, walks with a side-ways limp; a sad, sloping figure, with fleshy folds in the skin of his face, and large, sad, rheumy eyes. His shoulder was damaged so badly by the Ba’athist police, he is unable to walk properly and has to use a cane. He was thrown against a concrete floor during interrogation.
With slight nervousness and reserve, then, I watched The Devil’s Double, now out in cinemas, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Festival. I was a little sceptical of the choice of Dominic Cooper (who I had seen previously playing a pretty boy in Mama Mia!) as the role of both Uday and his body double. It seems rather offensive to use a non-Arab portray an Arab, a throwback to the days when cinema was so prejudiced they used European actors to play non-European characters (think Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia). Nonetheless, I decided to give Cooper benefit of the doubt.
The film is about the life of army lieutenant Latif Yahia, who was ordered to be a stand-in for Uday, otherwise his family would be killed. Latif agrees - after all, you didn’t say "no" to Saddam’s regime. You just did what you were told and hoped you and your family weren’t wiped out anyway. Children were required to join the Ba’ath party’s youth section at a young age, and if the family declined, they would be watched, forced into brutal interrogation, sometimes even killed. "No" was not a word often used in Saddam’s Iraq, not without horrific consequences.
Uday, in the film, is portrayed as a spoilt, hysterical madman - all fast designer wear, cigars, cocaine and women - which wasn’t far from reality. He had the whole country and everything in it at his disposal and collected 1,200 luxury cars. The film aptly shows how he understood and utilised the fact that there were no limits to what he could do. He could kill who he wished - in one scene, he disembowels his father’s food taster and valet at a party dedicated to the wife of Hosni Mubarak, ex-dictator of Egypt. He could have any woman he wanted, driving the bride of a war veteran to her suicide after making her another one of his conquests. He is filled with erratic, unpredictable energy, contrasting with the calmer, more reserved Latif. Latif is encouraged to share and enjoy Uday’s lifestyle - feel the fine cotton of designer clothes against his skin. Partake in drug-fuelled nights at expensive clubs. Breathe in the earthy smell of imported Cuban cigars. Even have his choice of women, who were seen, not as people, but as accessories, to be worn and enjoyed and thrown away if they were damaged or broken through use. There is extreme violence in every scene - the splattering of blood, the gaping open mouths of wounds. Uday is a child, carelessly enjoying the dizzying and horrifying rollercoaster of his own desire. It is grizzly, and I found myself with chills down my spine in places while watching it.
The film is glossy, well-produced and beautifully shot. However, I felt it was more of a fictionalised semi-comedy rather than a biopic of a man who regularly destroyed lives, simply for his own pleasure and self-indulgence. It overplays the glamour of his lifestyle, the absolute freedom and the limitless material wealth, and fails to give depth, or show the horrific reality behind Uday’s behaviour.
Furthermore, there is little in this film showing the culture of Iraq - the majority of the fashion is Western. While the elite did enjoy imported Western goods, they were also incredibly proud of their own traditions. The clubbing scenes in the film could have been taken from anywhere in the UK. In addition, Iraqi makeup is particularly distinctive - heavily decorated eyes and thick, dainty lashes, while the makeup in the film is not nearly as dark, smokey and alluring as is usual- just a few smidgens of black shadow and mascara. The women in the clubs are shown with brightly coloured, punkish hair- completely different from how women did their hair in Iraq, then and now. Though the film shows hot deserts, having been shot in Malta, you don’t get a sense of the Iraqi heat, which is something else entirely - muggy, smothering. Little touches like the designs of the rooms, and the dress of the dignitaries. It is like the set producer designed something vaguely Middle Eastern in a half-arsed rush. It takes some of the authenticity out of it.
Cooper’s acting throughout is good, not brilliant, and the level of drama he exhibits isn’t suitable for the subject matter. Uday is cartoonish, a brat and a fool, and his insanity is more akin to Wylie Coyote than Joe Pesci’s boiling, internal madness in Goodfellas. His faux Middle-Eastern accent also slips into well-spoken English at various points during the film, particularly in the character of Latif.
It neglects to explore the family and its background, Saddam Hussein seeming more like a wise and disappointed father than a mass murderer who has shaped his son’s morality as if it were clay. His downtrodden and miserable mother, whom Uday loved, turned manipulative and as cruel as her husband (Saddam met Linda Hussein when she was a beautiful young primary school teacher). There is little shown of the system that produced Uday - the Iraqi political elite was tribal, power transferred either by death or bargaining. To be a high standing government minister was just as dangerous as a lowly Ba’ath Party member. One of my friends in the Iraqi community remembers of his childhood, a dance he was forced to perform in front of the government, at school. They watched the children’s playful and clumsy dancing, which any other adult would have found charming, with faces as sullen as tombstones. The whole regime was toxic, and infected all that it encompassed with poison. Uday was simply a part of it.
Overall, there is little substance to the film, and it feels slightly hollow. The Devil’s Double does, however, touch on the situation of Uday’s life, and what happens if you give someone so much power that their morality ends up decaying. Unfortunately, the cause of the situation of Uday’s rise to power, the devastating effect his antics had in adding to the fear of the regime, and the oppression of the people of Iraq, are almost unseen.