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The Unknown Girl (3 stars)

Cannes 2016: Adèle Haenel stars in this lesser but still worthy effort from the Dardennes

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The Unknown Girl

In the latest Dardenne brothers film, Jenny Davin is not just a doctor, she is a saint. She is a kindly general practitioner whose compassion goes above and beyond the call of duty. Besotted patients reward her with gifts of Panettone and sing her praises in songs they have composed. Adèle Haenel’s performance is all brisk professionalism and decisive action, conveying a woman who has little cause to question herself or her actions.

That sense of certainty starts to crumble one evening at work. Pressed for time and weary after a long day, she has already been uncharacteristically harsh to her intern. The buzzer sounds but it is after hours and she decides not to answer. The next day she learns that a young black woman has been found dead nearby. Her last, frantic act was to press that buzzer in search of sanctuary.

Davin remains haunted by what might have been and comes over all Jessica Fletcher in an attempt to discover who this girl was and what really happened to her. The film takes the form of a surprisingly conventional investigation that involves a good number of her patients. People who start by having nothing to say, end by confessing everything to the good doctor.

Haenel is a compelling presence as the obsessive Davin, and Dardenne regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier have small but telling roles. Unusually for the Dardennes, some of the plotting doesn’t quite add up; the more they stray from the intense, social realist tales that made their reputation the less confident they seem to have become.

The story of one foreign woman’s life and death has a much wider resonance in a Europe that has become home to thousands of refugees. The Unknown Girl implicitly demands that we consider the importance of every individual life. It is a worthy lesson that struggles to shine through an often laboured and predictable narrative.

Screening as part of Cannes 2016. General release TBC

The Unknown Girl

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • Belgium
  • 113 min
  • Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardienne
  • Cast: Adèle Haenel, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet

Jenny (Haenel) is a brisk, kindly GP beloved of her patients. After a rare moment of carelessness, she is compelled to investigate the death of a young black woman. Haenel is compelling, and the story has plenty of resonance, but the surprisingly conventional narrative doesn't quite add up and it's worthy rather than…

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