This is a capsule review. A full review will be posted closer to release.
The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s earthily sumptuous and deeply felt Dheepan has only gained resonance since premiering back in May. The tale of three refugees posing as a family in order to gain asylum is revealing and sympathetic to both the plight of those affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the occupants of France’s government housing projects. Dheepan’s warmth and empathy are undeniably powerful, but some narrative choices complicate those feelings significantly.
Much of the best storytelling in Dheepan is done visually. The film’s title refers to the adopted name of Antonythasan Jesuthasan’s ex-Tamil Tiger, once he, Yalani (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and orphaned 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) immigrate to France using stolen passports. Moving into a squalid, crime-ridden apartment complex, the improvised family starts with little to their (fake) name. But the progression of time and character relationships is always clear from the evolution of mise en scène and costuming. The internal lives of the characters flourish in a similar fashion, the three leads adding layer after layer to their multi-lingual roles as time goes on. Though Audiard delivers some spectacular sequences through affected camera movements and lighting, Dheepan’s restrained naturalism is more often responsible for the pathos hitting home.
Audiard starts losing that grounding around the midpoint. The film’s charming, if slightly dopey optimism about starting over fresh gets washed away when gang violence, and Dheepan’s war experience create conflict. It eventually takes the once-minutely observed story to a conclusion that can be read as a commentary on the inescapability of violence, a jarring shift of purpose, or an extended tribute to a well-known American film that won the Palme almost 40 years before Dheepan. It’s a bold ending for a film that’s much more effective at being simply humane.
Thoughtfully directed and performed, Dheepan’s more debatable choices don’t overshadow its clear virtues.