FILM REVIEW: “Dheepan” puts a fresh spin on the immigrant saga

This tale of a Sri Lankan immigrant adjusting to life in Paris won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival

By now, American movie audiences have witnessed a vast panoply of immigrant tales, from the soft-lit nostalgia of John Carney’s “Brooklyn” to the harsh realities of Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre.” (And let’s not forget the animated adventures of Feivel the mouse in “An American Tail.”) Our country’s history, not to mention its current situation, can make it seem like immigration is the ultimate American narrative, and to a certain degree, that’s true. But it doesn’t just happen here, duh.

Both the origin and the destination of the emigrants in “Dheepan” automatically give the film an extra level of interest. It’s the story of a trio from Sri Lanka who become an ad hoc, fictional family in order to be granted refugee status and resettled in France.  Plopped into one of the infamous housing developments in the suburbs of Paris, where Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is hired as a caretaker, they try to adjust to their new life, leave their war-torn pasts behind, and maintain the fiction that allowed them to escape Hell. 

Jesuthasan Antonythasan stars in "Dheepan."

Jesuthasan Antonythasan stars in “Dheepan.”

So far, so good. Jesuthasan gives a compelling, intense, utterly believable performance. He didn’t have to look far for inspiration, having emigrated from Sri Lanka himself in the 1990s, struggling at menial jobs before getting involved in left-wing politics, literature, and, eventually, acting. In fact, his life story could make a film every bit as gripping as “Dheepan.”

Kalieaswari Srinivasan, as Dheepan’s faux spouse Yalini, and Claudine Vinasithamby, as their 9-year-old supposed daughter Illayaal, are impressive as well. Yalini takes a job as a home-care nurse for an ailing neighbor, while Illayaal deals with typical new-school anxieties, only exponentially multiplied.

The director is Jacques Audiard, whose previous films were the prison drama “A Prophet” and the romantic drama “Rust and Bone,” has become a reliably unfussy auteur, eliciting potent performances and ratcheting up dramatic intensity without resorting to tricks or bravado. That’s the case with “Dheepan,” as well, although the developments in the final act do skirt the edge of action-film melodrama. The movie won the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and arrives in Portland just as this year’s fest is wrapping up.

Despite the familiarity of some of its beats, this is a solidly, even passionately told story that expands Audiard’s impressive filmography in an unconventional direction, and gives the spotlight to an actor who will hopefully be granted many more opportunities to shine.

(115 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, May 27, at the Living Room Theaters) GRADE: B+

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