Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: Welcome

Dir. Philippe Lioret
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 100mins

The surprising, and quite shocking, laws that revolve around the French illegal immigrant crisis provide the central crux of Philippe Lioret's Lumiere Award-winning drama Welcome. With its ironic title, strong performances and its tale that plays like a harsher and all-around better version of The Blind Side, Welcome becomes one of the most refreshing French titles to reach Australian cinemas in a while, if not necessarily one of the very best.

It's a fantastic and gripping opening sequence where we witness Kurdish teenager Bilal (newcomer Firat Ayverdi) attempting to make his way out of France to get to his girlfriend in England. Along with his travelling companions, Bilal is captured and thus sets of a chain of events that will see him cross paths with former Olympian Simon (an excellent Vincent Lindon) who now gives swimming lessons at a local public pool. Simon's ex-wife, Marion (Audrey Dana) warns the gruff and lonely Simon that helping this boy could result in five-years jail and a substantial fine, something that I was personally quite shocked to discover were actual repercussions for anybody found guilty of helping these refugees in France under Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

It's a stunning facet of French society that lends Welcome a substantial amount of heft in the drama stakes. Helped along by a screenplay by Lioret, Emmanuel Courcol and Olivier Adam that thankfully steers the rather Hollywood storyline from the mundane to the potent. I couldn't help but see the similarities between Welcome and The Blind Side as both revolve around people who are thoroughly bored with their lives and decide to help someone far less fortunate than they, despite the social implications, and all-but adopting their chosen cause. Welcome is obviously the better film and thanks to Lioret's direction, it manages to be warm without whitewashing.

Unfortunately it is this Hollywood arc that allows the film to slip when it shouldn't. Characters other than Simon are rudimentary and black or white, whether it be the saintly ex wife school teacher who feeds the homeless in her spare time, the evil neighbour who glowers and represents the conservative right, or the naive Bilal. I found it quite difficult as a viewer to truly believe Bilal's mission - to swim the English Channel - or that he was stupid enough to attempt it. So much so that the film's end lacked the emotional punch that I suspect others felt. The film's strengths do not lie in its subtleties, but more in the performances, the light that it sheds on such a troubling development for French politics and Lioret's ability to keep the audience fixed on this important issue. It's just a shame that the end turns far-fetched. B

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