Film review – Duplicity (2009)

Ray Koval (Clive Owen)
Ray Koval (Clive Owen)

Duplicity is supposedly a film about multinational corporate espionage but it is really another take on the con-artist film, which was perfected and never since bettered by George Roy Hill’s 1973 classic The Sting. The ‘con-artists’ in Duplicity are ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen). When corporate titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) announces the upcoming launch of a new, mysterious super product, his rival Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) becomes determined to get to the product first. Enter Claire and Ray – they already have a rocky romantic and professional history and are now rival business spies. Or are they? Are they in fact both on the same side? Are they in fact now lovers trying to rip off both companies? Can writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) sustain the audiences’ interest in the series of light-hearted double-crossings and concealed motives that comprise most of Duplicity‘s running time?

Initially Duplicity does project the old school charm of a classical Hollywood screwball comedy with an old-fashioned international spy flavour. The busy cinematography, upbeat music and quirky shrinking-screen-shot edits are some of the stylistic flourishes that indicate the breezy tone of the film. The on-screen verbal sparring and off-screen bedroom antics between Claire and Ray also evoke the sexually charged dynamics of many of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films (in particular Intolerable Cruelty) and many of Steven Soderbergh’s films (in particular, Out of Sight). Unfortunately Duplicity does not sustain the level of sexiness, stylishness and cleverness that it would like to and its intrigue wears off too early. It also suffers from the same problem that many con-artist films suffer from and that is to conceal too much information from the audience. Revelations about the true nature of the deceit in con-artist films often comes close to the horrible “it was all just a dream” resolution.

Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts)
Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts)

While there is initially a lot of fun to be had in the banter between Roberts and Owen, they just don’t succeed in sustaining the necessary romantic chemistry and sexual tension. Despite the frequent close-ups on her cleavage, Roberts cannot shake her pure screen persona. This persona was the key to making the regressive fairytale Pretty Woman palatable to so many audiences, but it doesn’t work when we are expected to actually consider her as a sexual character. Owen’s problem is the opposite as after so many recent roles playing bitter, cynical and slightly sleazy men, it is slightly odd to see him clean-shaven and playing the romantic lead (albeit a slightly bitter, cynical and sleazy romantic lead). Interestingly the pair worked brilliantly together in the confronting Closer, suggesting that stronger writing and direction are all that they need. Duplicity is mostly fun and unchallenging entertainment but ultimately a bit of a disappointment.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. When might find ourselves in the minority here Thomas, word of mouth I’ve been catching have largely been praising the chemistry while my review of the film was in fact very similar to yours. My notes were covered in distractions re just how wrong Roberts was in the film. I thought Owen was great though, against all the odds really.

  2. I’m indifferent to Tony Gilroy and Julia Roberts but I really, really like Clive Owen. Children of Men, Inside Man, Closer and Gosford Park are four of my favourite films from recent years and Own has had a significant part in why I liked all four. I’m also a big fan of his work in The Bourne Identity and Croupier (plus the films themselves were great).

  3. He gets a bad rep and people are very quick to dismiss him. There’s obvious bad blips in his filmography, but I would say the excellent films outweight the poor and mediocre ones.

  4. I think you are totally right – though you got more out of this film than I did. I felt completely bamboozled (outsmarted?) by the plot. Am I that stupid? Made me angry and I didn’t care about Julia and Clive. Were they doublecrossing each other? Were they both scumbag shits? Who cares? I didn’t. In fact – terrible admission, even for an off-duty film reviewer – I left 3/4 way through to go home to bed and read!

  5. Hi Rochelle and thanks for dropping by. I don’t think that I disliked Duplicity as much as you did but it is still a pretty ordinary film. I would tell you what happened in the end but the film was so forgettable that I can’t really remember. I do recall that it was a let down though.

    I think it is a great thing to be able to walk out of a film. Life is too short. I wish I did it more often but every now and then I do see something where all the best material is at the end (not in this case though) so I am often worried about leaving early. But I know I do get to the end of some films, that I never had an intention of reviewing, and I kick myself for staying until the bitter end.

  6. Ha! Walking out is a great subject in and of itself. I used to have a policy of never walking out on films and until three or so years ago, I could count them on one hand.

    I used to pride myself on my ‘professionalism’, that even if I didn’t like a film, I could at least say I’d seen it and could talk about it. I’m still loath to walk out of a film, but sometimes there’s no justification for staying.

    I take time off work each year to attend MIFF and while I could ostensibly see 100, I limit myself to 40. If I see a film is going nowhere, that’s it – I’m out of there. I’d rather save myself for something that’s worth my time. As you say, Thomas, life is too short.

    I rarely walk out of theatrical release these days, largely because I’m so damn selective now about what to see. I’m sick of mediocre films and pretty much home in on those I expect to be good. Mostly, I’m not disappointed, at least not to the extent of walking out.

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