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Duplicity | Julia Roberts and Clive Owen shine as double-dealing spies

Five years after playing double-dealing lovers in the claustrophobic chamber drama Closer, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen team up again on screen as sneaky partners in love and crime in the jaunty globetrotting spy caper Duplicity.

They play a pair of former government spies who fell in lust while working for their respective agencies and have now branched out into the private sector in the hope of making a killing in the world of industrial espionage.

Owen’s one-time MI6 spy Ray Koval and Roberts’ ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick have cooked up a cunning scheme that involves them going to work for rival multinational cosmetics corporations: Burkett & Randall, headed by Tom Wilkinson’s Howard Tully, and Omnikron, whose boss is Tully’s bitter enemy, Dick Garsik, played by Paul Giamatti.

Tully apparently has a revolutionary new product in the pipeline; Garsik plans to steal it. Playing both ends against the middle, however, the lovers intend to seize the formula themselves - yet how much can they trust each other?

Duplicity - Julia Roberts & Clive Owen play amorous spies in this thriller set in the world of industrial espionage

As the deceptions and double-crosses pile up, writer-director Tony Gilroy keeps viewers on their toes, wrong-footing us with cunning misdirection and convoluted flashbacks. And he’s no stranger to cinematic smoke and mirrors: he wrote and co-wrote the Bourne franchise, and made his directing debut with the legal thriller Michael Clayton.

Duplicity revisits the world of corporate skulduggery Gilroy explored in Michael Clayton, and throws in a spot of Bourne spycraft, but its mood is far far lighter than those films’ sweaty intensity and muscular action. Indeed, it’s closer in tone to the 1967 Doris Day-Richard Harris comedy thriller Caprice, which similarly dealt with industrial espionage among cosmetics companies.

Fortunately, Duplicity is a great deal smarter than that notorious “bomb of magnificent proportions” - and Roberts and Owen have infinitely more chemistry than the woefully mismatched Day and Harris.

Duplicity - Paul Giamatti & Tom Wilkinson play bitter corporate rivals Dick Garsik and Howard Tully

Gilroy, though, doesn’t always seem to know the best formula for laughs: an early tussle between Wilkinson and Giamatti, in which the business rivals sink to the level of a playground brawl, is filmed in ponderous slow motion that is nowhere near as funny as its director seems to think.

The sparring between Roberts and Owen is much classier. Owen, oozing suavity and virility, clearly relishes the chance to throw off his habitual on-screen dourness (witness The International), and it’s a delight to see Roberts once more in a starring role. True, having taken time off from movies recently to concentrate on motherhood, she doesn’t have quite the same lustre as a star as before, but if her smile now lacks some of the old Klieg light dazzle, she remains a truly luminous screen icon.

(Released 2oth March)

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.