With a name like Duplicity and two big Hollywood leads, this film makes no secret of its genre. A spy thriller aimed squarely at a mainstream audience I approached it with some apprehension, being renowned for my failure to follow recent Bonds, Bournes and even Batmen.
A couple of encouraging reviews and the fact that my (tiny) local cinema was showing it got me there over Easter, however, and as Bank Holiday fare I was pleasantly surprised by it. Although the espionage-based sub-plot verged on the unlikely it wasn’t so preposterous that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, and, with a bit of mental crunching and backtracking, I even made reasonable sense of it.
The film differentiated itself further by billing female lead Julia Roberts first, as well as by the notable fact that she and leading man Clive Owen belong to the same generation. Less surprisingly the pair play ex-government agents nursing a dangerous mutual attraction, who ‘go private’ into corporate surveillance after high-ranking posts with the CIA and MI6.
As the film begins we witness their one interaction in their former roles: a romantic tryst which turns out to be a job for Roberts’ Clare and ends badly for Owen’s Ray. Fast-forward five years and the two come together on an undercover job for CEO Paul Giamatti, who is locked into a fierce business rivalry with cross-town competitor Tom Wilkinson.
Unsurprisingly our heroes begin the project on less than friendly terms, but a series of flashbacks to events since their first meeting reveal that this isn’t quite the ‘boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy convinces girl’ story we might expect.
In fact the romantic plot is unusually simple for the genre, and, as such, strangely touching. It takes a while to make sense of the flashback scenes, and one never quite trusts that things can be as straightforward as they seem, but by the time the present-day surveillance story reaches its climax the audience is finally clued-up about the pair’s back-story and intentions.
Owen and Roberts are excellently if predictably cast in their roles as ruthless spies, even if we are given less reason to believe in the softer characteristics the script claims for them. Roberts’ character is familiar from her similar role in 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and one can’t help but compare be-suited spy Owen with his victorious rival for the Bond role Daniel Craig.
But unchallenging lead casting has its place in a film of this kind, allowing us to process the characters quickly and focus our attention on the plot. The (type-)casting and career-standing of its lead players also lends Duplicity a certain old-school gravitas, and – although not quite Grant and Hepburn – it is refreshing to see two strong leads presented on such equal terms.
The supporting cast is also good, with Giamatti cast successfully against type, although, as previously, I found Tom Wilkinson unconvincing as an American. Given that he repeatedly wins high-profile American parts, however, he presumably convinces US casting directors and audiences, and his role was not large enough to distract me too often.
What does disappoint about the film is that, having built up to a reasonable (if not brilliant) ending, it presents it so half-heartedly – lingering too long over a denouement which could have been both surprising and wryly funny if delivered with greater impact.
As it is we are given too much explanation and too many perspectives on a twist which neither deserves nor requires them; writer-director Gilroy clearly lacking that Italian Job touch when bringing this slightly charred caper to a close.