Review: Jacques Audiard's 'Dheepan' Is A Stirring, Powerful Refugee Drama

A refugee from and purveyor of war finds that escape isn't so simple in Jacques Audiard's rich, compelling Cannes award-winner, Dheepan. Dheepan has established himself as the foremost chronicler of unique, deeply intimate multicultural stories, rising to international prominance with 2009's sprawling crime drama A Prophet. That was followed three years later by the equally powerful love story, Rust and Bone, which brought together Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Dheepan follows another complicated romance between lost souls looking to move beyond the past and forge a connection in a new land.

Much like his earliest work, Audiard has cast mostly unknowns and first-time actors for the central roles, adding an indisputable layer of authenticity. Antonythasan Jesuthasan plays Dheepan, an ex-Tamil rebel fleeing from wartorn Sri Lanka with a fake family in tow. His "wife" Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is younger, in her mid-20s, and has absconded with 9-year-old orphan girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to pose as their daughter. Securing new names and passports they are granted asylum in France, where they are given shelter in a drug-infested, crime-riddled ghetto.

The transition does not go smoothly. Dheepan finds work as the building's caretaker, which also means cow-towing to the needs of the local drug lords, who show him only marginal respect. As Illayaal struggles to acclimate to public schooling, the restless Yalini begins working as the maid and cook to the uncle of the most powerful criminal around.

Emotions are complicated in any relationship but they become even more jumbled among this sham family. Feelings of loneliness and longing are clouded by what is real and what is simply a matter of proximity. The confusion is only elevated by Illayaal's defiance to fit in with the French culture, and Dheepan's haunting memories of the past. Audiard, in examining the immigrant experience, places Dheepan and his family in a new environment only to find that the same problems, the same violence, is inescapable.

Audiard humanizes his characters in such a way that it's easy to forget you're watching a film and not a documentary subject. He's aided by three tremendously powerful performances, most especially by Jesuthasan who captures Dheepan's desire for a simple family life, and his growing anger that it may never come to pass. There are so many wonderful character moments shared between them that the final act, a chaotic spiral into murderous rage, is a bit jarring. Audiard has always had a propensity for melodrama; think of the ice-breaking final scenes in Rust and Bone, but as usual he recovers from the momentary lapses with hopeful optimism. Dheepan also ends on such a note, and while that may seem unusual for this type of refugee story, the heartbreaking and tender journey Audiard sends these characters on makes it all feel well earned.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5