After winning the prestigious Palme d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, ‘Dheepan’, directed and co-written by acclaimed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, is at last due for a UK release. Said to be loosely inspired by Persian Letters, a literary piece by political philosopher Montesquieu, the film tackles the very topical subject of immigration. Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a Tamil Tiger freedom fighter in the Sri-Lankan Civil War who is sent to a refugee camp and given the identity of a dead man named Dheepan. Posing as a family, he and his supposed wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) flee to France in search of a better life. Dheepan lands a caretaking job when they settle in a squalid suburb north of Paris, but soon faces danger in a very different kind of warzone.
The pacing is slow and steady and the tone is always bleak, but there is a subtle light deep within the underdog characters that brings a sense of hope to their dark story, as they battle adversity. An odd faux-family dynamic forms between the protagonists that is fascinating to see develop, and even though they’ve just been thrown together, they unite to resemble a real family when times are tough. There is an unnerving tension present throughout as their secret is always at risk of being exposed and in the third act, this builds to a gripping Statham-esque finale when Dheepan fights back against one of the local gangs. This far-fetched ending is impactful but feels misplaced, veering away from the stark realism that serves the film so well up to that point.
Part of the reason why the storytelling feels so natural, for the most part, is down to leading actor Jesuthasan, who was in fact a Tamil child soldier up until the age of nineteen. His performance is stunning and holds the weight of his experiences. The believable portrayals from both Srinivasan and Vinasithamby compliment Jesuthasan in what is amazingly their first acting credits, and they wear expressions of hardship and desperation in every frame. Vincent Rottiers plays manipulative French drug mule Brahim, and is both complex and menacing in the villainous role. Two-hander scenes where Brahim and Yalini converse are fraught with apprehension, as the cultural clash between them is explored.
‘Dheepan’ continues the in-form run of Jacques Audiard, who has established himself as a key player in 21st century French cinema. His stripped back, pragmatic approach works well with the subject matter and the environment of the movie, and this makes for a very intriguing watch. The multiple facets of the volatile, titular character provide the core interest as we see him warily tread the line between warrior and worrier. He’s not a hero nor a villain which gives him authenticity, and Jesuthasan’s performance heightens this as art imitates his life.