Director Lee Tamahori has dealt with violent male characters before (in his debut Once Were Warriors), but this is something else entirely. If even half of what is presented on screen in this flawed but fascinating film is true, Uday Hussein was a psychopath of unparalleled proportions. Cooper’s performances as both leads is hugely impressive, especially given that nothing on his CV suggested he had the equipment to carry off either of them, much less both.
His turn as Uday is terrifying, a wildly unpredictable, savage, drug-addled sadist, yet is not just a one-dimensional monster. Uday is presented as genuinely dangerous and resourceful, far more unhinged than his equally brutal father. By contrast, Yahia is portrayed by Cooper as composed, moral and confident, albeit eventually coerced into a life he clearly detests. His loathing for Uday is never concealed and though Uday clearly does not care what Yahia thinks of him, at least we do not get a “lose your own soul and forget who you are” arc. Instead, Yahia remains his own man until he is pushed beyond the point of acquiescence and seeks to cut himself loose.
The film thoroughly earns its 18-certificate, with some genuinely disturbing scenes of violence, torture and sexual assault, yet the violence (as extreme as it is) never becomes gratuitous nor does the sexual content become lascivious, proving instead to be a necessary part of the portrayal of Uday’s life of untethered hedonism. As one character remarks, he does what he wants and no-one tells him to stop”. The pacing at times lags a little, with Yahia’s life portrayed through a series of episodic incidents which for the most part could happen in any order, with insufficient sense of the passing of time or the intersecting with wider historical events, which would have helped anchor the story and engage the audience. The exception is the section of the film set around the invasion of Kuwait and the war with the Allies, which drops in some real-life footage of General Schwarzkopf and assorted Western leaders and finally gives us a clearer sense of when and where we are.
Uday is of course an utterly unsympathetic character and all of our concerns are encouraged to rest with Yahia and rightly so, for it is his life, his story being presented, but Cooper commendably keeps Uday the right side of pantomimic caricature. He rants, raves, staggers, shoots, slashes and snorts – it is a committed, immersive performance by Cooper for which he should properly be lauded and which should lead to bigger and better opportunities and roles in the near future.
What could have been a ghastly exercise in excess instead proves to be an engaging and affecting character drama, with at times too little incident to flesh out the running time, but enough interesting moments to make it a worthwhile watch. With Uday and Yahia front and centre, everyone else is reduced for the most part to scene-filler, but then it is their story, so that seems an unnecessary quibble. Fascinating and appalling, but well worth a watch.
Extras: Apparently a director’s commentary will be available on DVD and BD, but were not on the review disk. Aside from that there is a ridiculously brief making of, which they might just as well not have bothered with, short make up and production design featurettes and then worthwhile interviews with Cooper and the real-life Yahia, both of which give valuable insight. Cooper in particular comes across as a considered and focussed actor, taking his craft seriously without slipping into cliché territory. Not bad.