I have often thought that the French are the masters of cinema, with their stylish camera work and intimate portrayals of human behaviour. After Jacques Audiard’s phenomenal Rust and Bone (2012), I was dubious about whether or not the director could live up to the hype of his previous work but along comes Dheepan and all my wasted worries are demolished! Powerfully compassionate and inspiring with an overflow of issues highlighted, including war, immigration and prejudice, this movie will open your eyes to the struggle and depravation of life as an asylum seeker - an issue that could not be more relevant in the present day.

From the onset, the audience are struck by the powerful subject of this movie with shots of Tamil Tiger soldier Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and his comrades piling and burning bodies, after being defeated by the Sri Lankan Military during the civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were an independent militant organisation who wanted to create their own state in Northern Sri Lanka. Here the audience is instantly thrown in at the deep end with a series of close ups of the burning bodies and the desecrated souls that have been left behind after 26 years of bloodshed.

The film then cuts to a refugee camp where we are introduced to Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman who is trying to recruit an abandoned child in a bid for political asylum out of Sri Lanka. After finding nine year old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) whose parents died in the war, Yalini and Sivadhasan (who now goes by the name Dheepan) pose as a fake family and flee their war-torn homeland with the help of some fake passports and illegal smugglers.

On arrival in France, the ‘family’ are put through a harrowing interrogation process by immigration officials and are placed on a deprived housing estate on the outskirts of Paris. In what can only be described as moving the trio from one war zone to another, the narrow minded notion that all asylum seekers are given a wealth of benefits is blown apart when the three main characters are introduced to their new home. Dheepan and his family appear to be in the concrete Western equivalent of a refugee camp; their new abode is filthy and damaged, with holes in the walls and surrounded by gangs of youths who are either drinking, smoking or selling drugs. The main difference from their previous home is having to deal with the isolation of not knowing the local language, and facing the prejudice that comes with being an asylum seeker.

In a bid to rebuild and adapt to their new lives in France, Dheepan is given a job as caretaker for the estate whilst Yalini plays housewife and Illayall starts school (where she is put in a special needs class like all the other refugee children). The film has an amazing focus on character and relationships as we witness the contrasting behaviours between the main characters and how they cope with the drastic changes in their new life.

Despite posing as a family, Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal know very little about each other, and up until this point we have yet to see any emotion or grief in response to the war they have just endured. The characters appear to ‘soldier on’ in a bid to survive, but the cracks begin to show when Illayaal lashes out at school in a response to being ostracised by a gang of girls whom she wants to play with, and Yalini displays an unwillingness to go outside and speak to anyone.

The characters display a commendable amount of strength, especially Illayaal who in spite of being ripped away from her homeland appears incredibly smart and adaptable acting as a translator for both Dheepan and Yalini. Despite her reluctance to embrace her new life in France after expressing her wish to live in England with her cousin, Yalini is given a job as a carer for her catatonic neighbour Mr Habib, where she meets ‘leader of the pack’ and ex-con Brahim.

The racial prejudice and disrespect that comes with life as an asylum seeker cannot be ignored in this movie, which includes many uncomfortable encounters, such as when Dheepan is referred to as ‘Mowgli’ whilst being verbally abused and having bricks thrown at him. Some of the most heartbreaking moments occur when Dheepan is desperately trying to adapt and understand the French language to no avail, or when his poverty forces him to be resourceful and create his own tools and furniture - his resilience to make a life for himself is inspiring as well as heart wrenching.

Yalini also strikes up an unconventional relationship with ex-con Brahim, who display a mutual understanding for each other’s shortcomings despite the language barrier. In one particular scene, Brahim invites Yalini to sit and talk with him and despite not being able to understand one another, they both divulge their frustrations in a dynamic form of therapy. Here, the sense of comradery transcends race and heritage as we see how these characters are each suffering as victims of circumstance and poverty, living in their own prison where there are no prospects to aspire to regardless of nationality.

As the plot develops, we see the main characters become gradually more westernised as they adjust to their new life in France. However, after an encounter with a former Colonel from Sri Lanka, flashbacks of the trauma of the life Dheepan left behind send him into a downward spiral of despair and PTSD. 

Dheepan is a truly magnificent eye opener of a film, with a hopeful ending that makes the viewer consider a range of social issues, from war and racism, to poverty and social prejudice. Whilst Jacques Audiard once again presents a strong narrative and stylish direction, it is the magnificent strong cast that stand out for their soulful displays of humanity and emotion.

See Dheepan at FACT.