May issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 15 years ago

The plot of Duplicity is made apparent in the opening scene: James Bond meets Nancy Drew. Clive Owen, an MI6 agent, flirts uncontrollably with CIA officer Julia Roberts at a party at the American Embassy in Dubai. Even at this early stage, there is a hint of menace underneath the playfulness. Later that night, Roberts drugs Owen (but only after sleeping with him) and steals some secret documents from his room.

Next thing you know, five years have passed and the protagonists have moved on. Both are now working for the private sector, in the field of industrial espionage. At first, it appears they are working for rival firms, but we soon learn that Julia Roberts has been planted as a competitor by Clive Owen’s company. If all this sounds all too complex, there are even more twists in store. Both Owen and Roberts are planning on stealing a new technology, not for their own company, but for profit. This game of deviousness also includes Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, the heads of the respective companies, who also get involved in the double-and triple-crossing.

Duplicity is not your standard spy caper. Although it has many of the conventions of the genre — a cat-and-mouse game between the lead characters, romance and plenty of twists — it doesn’t take itself too seriously, always pulling the rug from under its audience just when they think they have the plot figured out. Constant back-and-forth shifts in time serve to confuse rather than clarify and it is only at the end that we figure out who has been playing whom all along.

Throughout, it seems that the movie will fall under the weight of its ambition. What makes it enjoyable despite its too-clever-by-half plot is the charisma and chemistry of its leads. The only previous movie in which Julia Roberts and Clive Owen appeared together was Closer, where the suffocating pretentiousness of the script didn’t allow the actors to develop any bond.

Duplicity may be a summer action flick but it has none of the negatives associated with that pejorative term. It is fun without being dumb and uses action sequences to complement the plot rather than distract from it. The movie offers up a flurry of surprises, not least of which is the fact that it is actually quite good.


Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.