Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers
Film Review by Colin Lomas
In a desperate attempt to escape war-torn Sri Lanka, a Tamil fighter finds a woman and a recently orphaned girl to complete a valid family immigration unit with passports harvested from the recently dead. With his new identity Dheepan (Antonythasan) and his new fabricated wife Yalini (Srinivasen) and new nine-year old daughter Illayaal (Vinasithamby) travel by boat with the hopes of a new and better life in Europe. They settle in a grim council tenement in Paris controlled by gangsters where Dheepan is made janitor of one of the blocks. Yalini manages to get a job cooking and cleaning for the gentle dementia-suffering uncle of the leader of one of local gangs Brahim (Rottiers) and their new lives start to converge with the day to day existence of thuggery and drugs.
The film follows the manufactured family as they begin to explore their new surroundings with only each other and the local drug dealers and gangsters for company. Srinivasan is superb as Yalini and you personally share her experiences as she evolves throughout the film, from the embers of a downtrodden war-victim to the initial sparks of a self-assured Westernised woman. Anthonyhasan’s Dheepan however feels constantly and frustratingly unexplored. There are flashes of passion here and there but the daily drudgery of janitorial duties doesn’t allow his character to flourish as much as you would hope.
It’s also unfortunate that Illayaal’s character isn’t explored more as the majority of the empathy is with her; a bright friendly girl who has lost everything and thrown into a school where she can hardly communicate with classmates who shun her. After a couple of engaging exploratory scenes, she disappears entirely from the movie and doesn’t reappear until the end, an exasperating missed opportunity to truly build some compassion with her character. Rottiers is excellent as the fierce Brahim. There are great moments when his human side starts to surface as he chats to Yalini before he consciously tears himself back to his vicious gangster persona, which work superbly.
The only constant throughout is the changing dynamics between the assembled family which at times is achieved well. Other possible storylines however are extinguished almost immediately and leave you wondering why they were included at all; Dheepan’s meeting with a Tamil leader working inside Paris, the lunchtime relationship he starts to build with the drug runners, all lead to nothing and feel a little senseless.
There are moments of real creative flare in Audiard’s direction. As the credits fade away at the beginning, dots of light blur into view, reminiscent of a landing aircraft or an aerial cityscape, slowly dissolving into the heart-shaped flashing LED hats worn on the head of Dheepan and other immigrants illegally selling cheap plastic novelty goods on the streets of Paris. These moments are beautiful but far too infrequent to augment any creative sparkle to the movie as a whole.
The ending gravely lets Dheepan down. All the respectable slow burning focus and underplaying of a narrative that could have easily been overblown and overtly violent is instantly lost in a rather unnecessary and unrealistic Rambo-esque shoot out in the final few minutes. What is most likely targeted as a reminder of Dheepan’s violent Tamil past sits awkwardly with what up until that point feels more like a kitchen sink drama, and grates clumsily against the rest of the film.
It’s not unlikely that the awards reaped upon Dheepan are more due to the premise of the story rather than its execution. You can’t just throw a family of immigrants into a Parisian sink estate and expect a La Haine to fall out, and Dheepan suffers badly from a lack of self-identity. There really is a wonderful film hiding in Dheepan somewhere but regrettably it hasn’t quite found itself in time for its release date.