It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (10th – 21st October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Alex Dewing reviews Bill Oliver’s low-key sci-fi on the duality of life.
Not only is Duplicate Bill Oliver’s debut at LFF, but it is, more impressively, also his first feature-length film. And what a debut it is. He takes up the role of writer and director with an assured and delicate touch that sets him up as one to keep your eye on. Who better, then, to lead his low sci-fi drama than fellow up and comer Ansel Elgort? Together, these two create an inspired story that is simultaneously a spectacular piece of sci-fi cinema and a delicate exploration of family and mental health.
Brothers Jonathan and John live very different lives; the former is reserved, quietly creative, and somewhat naive, quietly turning down the advances of the new girl at his architectural firm without even realising her interests in him. Meanwhile, the latter is extroverted and assertive, a free spirit, staying up late after work in favour of sticking to his sibling’s strict routine. But still, the bothers are closer than most. So close that, in fact, Jonathan and John are one and the same. Two minds, one body. In Oliver’s world, this is merely a rare condition and one that can be dealt with – namely by splitting the two into separate consciousnesses and giving them ‘shifts’ (7am to 7pm and 7pm to 7am).
It is not however simply a Jekyll and Hyde trope. Instead, it’s given a sophisticated spin through focusing the film through the sole perspective of Jonathan. The two can only communicate through video recordings made at the end of each shift. But there is a conscious restraint from painting the two as hero and villain. There are no more antagonistic sentiments from John than ones you might find from a child towards their own sibling. Moreover, this closed narrative allows for and heightens the dramatic tension that the film greatly profits from; following Jonathan’s life as he deals with his brother’s increasingly distant and erratic behaviour, John’s absence from the screen mimics that very same absence from his sibling with wickedly suspenseful effect.
From the heights of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Duplicate may seem a strange direction for Elgort to be taking. His effortless charm seems more fitting for big-budget pieces than sci-fi indies. Yet he slips into this role (or roles, I should say) with confidence and ease, striking a balance between being a normal man trying to find his place in the world and one who has been born into an impossible situation but perseveres out of his love for his family. As John descends further into desperation and despair for reasons unknown to his brother, Jonathan too falls into hopelessness, determined not to lose the one person he’s always been closest to. Elgort is transformative in his performance, bringing a subtlety to his internal battles that further highlights his skill.
Similarly, cinematographer Zach Kuperstein takes a muted approach to the visuals of the film. The cityscapes are imposing but beautiful, while the startlingly unspoiled structures feel at once familiar and yet somewhat futuristic. You are reminded at all times that Jonathan is trapped in more ways than one. With Elgort’s character consistently restrained to the edge of frame, staring out at the unknown, Duplicate is superbly composed through clean edges and sharp lines; lines which start to blur as the narrative pushes forward.
Uncertainty surrounding the films narrative direction aids the film in maintaining intrigue and suspense; what starts as a brotherly disapproval of John’s decision to start dating (breaking the final and most important rule set by the two on advice from their Doctor / surrogate mother Dr Nariman, Patricia Clarkson) slowly tumbles into more deeply-rooted obstacles that threaten their entire existence. These two sides of the story, however, is expertly counterpoised by Oliver. LFF Programmer, Michael Blyth, states that this film is “intimate in scale yet boldly ambitious in its ideas”, a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. Duality, it seems, runs through every aspect of the film.
Duplicate is an assured sci-fi tale that plays through with a quiet confidence, languorously delving into the realities of its fiction. At the same time, it perfectly portrays the deceptive nature of mental health issues, whether intentional or not. A reminder that internal struggles are exactly that – nobody can know when you’re hurting. And sometimes, you can trick yourself into believing you’re fine. Roz Kaveney said that the strength of the sci-fi genre is founded in “picking and choosing narrative tropes and developed ideas and making from them something new”, and Duplicate does exactly that. Together Oliver and Elgort have, quite simply, made something incredibly unique.
Duplicate is known as Jonathan in the United States. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out the trailer below: