Violence haunts a makeshift family of Sri Lankan refugees in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, writes MacDara Conroy
Jacques Audiard’s refugee drama Dheepan comes at a critical time, as Europe wrestles with its conscience over the ongoing migration crisis in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. It’s also a film that underlines this humanitarian crisis does not begin and end with the civil war in Syria, or the collapse of law and order in Libya. It’s one that goes back years, if not decades, if not always, as far away as the Indian Ocean and as close to home as the suburbs of any large European metropolis.
It’s in one of those suburbs where our titular protagonist (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) winds up, having escaped the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War with his ‘wife’ Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and their ‘daughter’ Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), masquerading as a family to navigate the cold bureaucracy of the refugee system and secure a better life in the banlieues of Paris.
Keeping up appearances is hard work, as this new life is not necessarily one of their own choosing. Dheepan, an erstwhile Tamil Tiger employed as the caretaker of their crumbling housing project on the periphery of Le Pré, is eager to be doing anything other than shooting a gun and burning dead bodies. Yalini has no maternal instincts, resenting their ruse when she could be in England with relatives who escaped the conflict before her. Meanwhile, orphaned Illayaal faces the multiple challenges of new parental figures, a new home, a new language, and playground suspicions that prompt her to lash out violently.
Audiard is wise not to light this powder keg lest it blow up in his face, and instead allow these characters – social misfits, outcasts and non-conformists familiar in his filmography, not only the celebrated A Prophet and Rust and Bone – to adapt to their new surroundings (Dheepan earns respect for his thankless job; Yalini finds work as home help for an elderly Algerian man with dementia) and slowly forge a genuine affection and understanding for one another, something they will need when they discover the horrors they left behind in Sri Lanka manifest in a different but no less violent form in their gang-riddled council flats, lorded over by a drug baron on tagged release from prison (Vincent Rottiers, with shades of a young Vincent Cassel).
The film loses some of its emotive power when the situation inevitably explodes, at first reminiscent of the shocking fulcrum of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List but slipping fast into tense but generic action thriller mode. That abrupt shift may not be to everyone’s taste, though Audiard’s Dheepan works hard to earn that indulgence, as it earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.
The Man Who Knew Infinity, also out this Friday, is another fish-out-of-water story, but one that does little to earn its own lavish indulgences. Matthew Brown’s film compromises the undoubtedly impressive yet controversial biography of pioneering mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan as a more palatable but bland underdog fable, brushing over both the complexities of the pure maths in which he excelled via a faith-versus-reason analogy that doesn’t lead anywhere good, and the fact that his ‘bride’ was just 10 years old when they were married.
Sure to delight the Downton Abbey crowd, the Great War period locations are postcard-perfect, from the imposing halls and manicured lawns of Cambridge to the dusty exotic quaintness of Madras. And the cast are impeccably turned out, in their stereotypical way: Jeremy Irons as Ramanujan’s mentor GE Hardy has the stiffest of upper lips; poor Dev Patel as the titular infinity-knower is typecast forever on the big screen as the Slumdog Millionaire. Only Toby Jones exhibits any real pathos or warmth as the put-upon yet kindhearted sidekick Littlewood. To borrow a metaphor from the film, it’s all theorem and no proofs.
Dheepan opens at Dublin’s IFI and Light House Cinema on Friday April 8th The Man Who Knew Infinity opens nationwide on the same date.