Thomas Vickers reviews Dheepan, now playing at the Hyland Cinema

War Follows: “Dheepan”

In times of war, many people become caught in the middle with no stake to claim beyond survival; Survival, however, often becomes a fight of its own. In Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, a desperate attempt to escape war lands its characters in a different conflict; what follows is a fascinating morality tale about the lasting impact of war as, for many who try to escape it, war follows.

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During the decline of the Sri Lankan Civil War in the late 2000’s, a disillusioned member of the faltering resistance decides to flee the country. With a woman willing to pose as his wife and an orphaned child in tow to help sell their story, the trio assume the lives of deceased citizens Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), using their documentation to seek refuge in France. “Dheepan” and his family are set up in a run-down apartment complex where he will act as caretaker, but it soon becomes clear that this is not the safe haven they had hoped for, as the complex is run by a drug-dealing gang of thugs. With their new life built on a lie and the dangers of their new home mounting, will the trio succeed in their fight or be casualties of yet another war?

The narrative is a compelling, character-driven exploration of human conflict, and Audiard (acting as both Writer and Director) employs a breadth of techniques to keep the story engrossing. The film is thematically reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ 2002 masterpiece “Dirty Pretty Things”, with similarly rich characters who make the central dilemma equal parts thrilling and harrowing. Antonythasan is positively captivating in the lead role, walking the line of a man who seeks peace desperately, but is driven to fight for what he cares about. Srinivasan makes for a brilliant support, fleshing out a complex character with her own goals and plans for action.

Such wonderful performances are also backed by interesting visuals, particularly in the lighting and colouring. Audiard and crew play with a variety of exposures and colours, pushing the audience towards feelings of unease to match the characters themselves. These more surreal moments are balanced with sections of stark realism, where a relatively neutral colour palate creates a beautiful contrast for the grisly events taking place. The cinematography is not to be dismissed either, particularly in the film’s climactic sequence which manages to show just enough, leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

The only thing holding this film back from perfection is the inclusion of some scenes which, although relevant, do not seem essential to the overall story. For example, one particular scene with Illayaal at school certainly fits with the rest of the film thematically, but in the grand scope of events it seems unnecessary. It is understandable why such scenes are included, but one also gets the sense that the nearly 2-hour Crime Drama could be condensed into a tight, 90-minute package about the lingering effect of war.

Audiard delivers in this beautifully tragic tale of war, both civil and personal. Backed by a magnificent cast in rich, well-written roles, as well as captivating technical prowess, the overall effect is a near-perfect human drama.

Dheepan is now playing at The Hyland Cinema.

 4.5 (out of 5)

Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.

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