Review: ‘Dheepan’ a harsh examination of immigrant life

Jacques Audiard directs this riveting story about a Sri Lankan refugee who starts a new life in France

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Dheepan” is a breathtaking examination of the modern immigrant experience, the psychological damage of war and man’s instinct to protect his family.

It’s a lot to chew on, but director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) frames his story in devices palatable to everyday audiences. His story is a modern “Straw Dogs” about a man pushed to his breaking point in a world where he can’t escape the horrors of violence.

That man is Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, marvelous), who escapes from Sri Lanka, where he’s a soldier in that country’s civil war, in favor of a fresh start in France. As part of his cover, he partners with Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan, also excellent), who poses as his wife, and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who acts as their daughter.

They leave for a country where they barely speak the language (Illayaal is the best speaker of the three of them), but where they at least have an opportunity at life. They take up residence in an apartment complex where Dheepan becomes a property manager and Yalini acts as a caretaker for an elderly shut-in, but they soon find themselves caught up in a turf war that parallels the unrest they supposedly left behind.

Audiard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, shows the difficulty of assimilation, both into a foreign society and into a forced family situation, telling a small story against a backdrop of a much larger socio-political issue. The film simmers and builds until it boils over in an explosive climax. And it shows how far people will go just to be able to cling to some semblance of hope.

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Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity

Running time: 114 minutes