It’s hard to imagine Nigel Farage watching Dheepan (though why you’d want to is between yourself and your imagination). The idea of old Nige watching a film of an immigrant’s experience living in modern Europe would likely have him spluttering on his pint in indignation. But he and those fellow countrymen who share his bleak view of folks ‘coming over here! Taking our benefits/housing/jobs!’ would be missing out on another powerful film by Jacques Audiard if they passed up the chance to watch an intelligent, reasoned exploration of a refugee’s struggles in modern Europe.
At the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a Tamil soldier (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) uses a dead man called Dheepan’s passport in order to escape to Europe. To aid his passage, he must take his ‘family’ of a ‘wife’ he doesn’t know and his ‘daughter’, a girl picked at random by his ‘wife’. They settle in France, in a rundown tower block where he takes a job as a cleaner. But rather than a peaceful new beginning he’d hoped for, Dheepan soon becomes drawn into another dangerous and volatile conflict, with the merciless criminal gang that runs the estate.
Audiard’s films often explore the experience of underrepresented groups in French society, using their stories as a vehicle to explore modern France whilst also functioning as superlative thrillers. He revisits such themes in Dheepan and along with his A Prophet/Rust and Bone co-writer Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré crafts a structural strong script that manages to work equally well as a neo-western, domestic drama, crime, romance, social commentary and action.
Dheepan shines a spotlight on the disparity between hopes and expectation early on in the film with a hypnotic image of Dheepan selling cheap light up toys at night on the streets of Paris. That disparity is evident throughout, particularly with the unappealing but essential job opportunities the lead characters have to accept. Dheepan having to work as a caretaker and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) working as a carer for an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, regardless of their employment histories or experience, mirrors the experience of many immigrants across Europe.
The heightened situation of Dheepan presents its namesake lead character with a direct, physical and violent struggle to confront: a violent gang that has a stranglehold on the estate he lives in. In a wonderful cinematic moment that stands as one of the year’s highlights, Dheepan draws a literal line in the sand to try and stop an escalating conflict, but merely serves to fan the flames. When the tension finally boils over, the action is visceral, tense and unflinching.
All of the thriller elements wouldn’t be as compelling without the central relationship between Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The initially tense interactions are fascinating to watch. As they gradually lower their guards and slowly begin to trust, care for and love each other the stakes become higher and more emotionally involved both for the film and its central character. The performances the trio give are remarkable, with Jesuthasan, a former child soldier turned poet, filmmaker and actor, magnetic as the stoic Dheepan, and Srinivasan and Vinasithamby, both first time actors and both excellent.
Audiard has long established himself as one of the most consistent and interesting directors on the international stage. He makes a welcome return with Dheepan a tense, emotional powerful and timely exploration of refugees trying to make a life for themselves in modern Europe.
Dheepan is available on Digital Download from 1st August and on DVD/Blu-Ray from 8th August