The title suggests something with two sides, but Duplicity has many more layers than that. It’s a densely coiled plot with a splintered chronology and a mish-mash of competing genres, adept at leaving you guessing and searching for clues.
Starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, who were last seen together in Closer, it is at once a love story, a topical satire of corporate business and an espionage thriller. They play two ex-agents, respectively MI6 and CIA, now working as industrial spies for a Manhattan cosmetics firm.
By far the strongest part of the film is the way it takes the world of consumerist business to bits. Roberts, who becomes a ‘counter-intelligence’ spy, moles her way into one company whilst working for the other. She is part of an ongoing battle of wit, red herring, bluff and double bluff between the two companies, whom are both competing for the same priceless patent.
The companies’ executives, played by the always watchable Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, talk grandly of war and strategy, defining moments and hundred year plans. What is it they are in competition to sell? Shampoo and skin cream.
Directed by Tony Gilroy, who is regarded as one of the premier scriptwriters in Hollywood, there is a purposeful classicism and Hitchcockian subtext to the film, the kind of caper you would expect Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn to have starred in during the Hollywood’s studio age.
There is, however, a nagging feeling that part of Duplicity’s jigsaw is missing.
Maybe the quality of lead actors isn’t as high anymore, or maybe, in this age of hyper-realism, such a mannered and scripted depiction of imposters, deceptions and confidence tricksters does not have the same appeal as it once did. Or it may simply be that you are never convinced by the relationship between Owen and Roberts who, as the title suggests, circle each other in an ornate dance of desire and hidden agenda.
The deconstruction of the idea of trust may work in conjunction with rival companies, but the film struggles to make it work when it confronts actual human interaction. Like so many films, it suffers because it cannot engineer that elusive spark.
For all its sides and layers, the film struggles to immerse its audience in its intricate game, and all the flashy suaveness and verbal boxing matches begin to feel like an exercise in CV building for Owen and Roberts and an opportunity for Gilroy to flex his creative muscles.
A film that gleams brightly on the outside, but is hollow within. Hitchcock would be proud.