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Dheepan—fighter’s flight is a unique take on war veteran films

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Issue 2499
tamil refugee Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan)
Tamil refugee Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan)

The story of the veterans of failed wars has been a Hollywood staple since Vietnam in the 1970s. In the traditional storyline mentally scarred warriors return home to less than a heroes’ welcome and then all hell breaks loose.

But award-winning director Jacques Audiard turns most of this on its head.

Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a Tamil Tiger fighter who’s escaped to Paris from Sri Lanka following defeat in the civil war.

To claim asylum, Dheepan uses a dead fighter’s passport. He poses as part of a family with a woman and a young orphan girl who he’s never met. Together they move to a poor estate on the capital’s outskirts where Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker.

The three Tamils speak no French.Much of the film is spent patiently observing the difficulties that millions of migrants face trying to survive, communicate and “fit in”.

With the dialogue necessarily sparse, the acting and direction are really in the spotlight. Neither disappoints.

Dheepan’s wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is a complex character. A young woman forced into an unwanted motherhood, with a job as a careworker and shy disposition, she is a fighter of a different sort to Dheepan. Her tense expressions show the constant fear she battles. Her aim is to make it to England alone as soon as her papers are approved.

Nine year old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) is eager and quick to learn. She picks up French well enough to teach some to her “parents”.

But at school she is isolated and at home she is at best an afterthought to Yalini. She knows the family affection she craves will never come.


Some of the most intense scenes focus on how the fake couple try to make themselves real—and how circumstances continually push them apart.

Despite occasional warmth and humanity from some fellow tenants, the three quickly find that they have merely escaped from one war zone to another.

Drug gangs control the area, with lookouts posted upon the roof tops and heavily armed young “soldiers” patrolling the streets and corridors. Gun fights and killings are commonplace while the state is completely disinterested.

The cinematography and attention to detail will remind viewers of Audiard’s earlier films, especially the prison drama A Prophet. He humanises even the most violent gang members while maintaining a climate of tension.

This will doubtless be one of the reasons why his film won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes film festival last year.

By the end of the film, Dheepan cannot help but see echoes of the Sri Lankan civil war everywhere. The ghosts of his past increasingly dominate him.

It is here that Audiard’s masterpiece starts to unravel. There are simply too many plotlines crisscrossing. This puts too much pressure for the film to end as brilliantly as it has started with a neat wrap-up.

But for a glimpse into the complex lives of refugees in Europe, Dheepan is as powerful as it comes.

Directed by Jacques Audiard
Out now

The Last Man on the Moon

Since Apollo 18 spacecraft commander Gene Cernan left the Moon after tracing his daughter’s initials in the lunar dust in 1972, no-one has been back. This acclaimed documentary tells his story.

The space footage is exhilarating, but it takes a long time to get to it. The film is more about the intense lives of astronauts and the effects it had on their families.

At times it is moving or insightful. But while its narrow focus loses some of the big picture, it also falls short of really scrutinising the militaristic US space programme.

Today Cernan works to inspire young people about space. He seems to think about “humanity” more than the US state and the future more than the past. It’s a shame the film doesn’t too.

Dave Sewell

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