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European films

Film review: The Unknown Girl – Dardenne brothers’ low-key detective mystery lacks the punch of earlier films

While the Belgian duo’s brand of unsentimental social realism is expertly rendered, it is mainly Adèle Hanael’s spirited performance as a doctor weighed down by the death of a young female African that keeps things ticking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 11:33am

3/5 stars

After Rosetta, and more recently The Kid With a Bike and Two Days, One Night, the latest feature from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne again hinges on the presence of a cast-iron female lead.

Played by Adèle Haenel, Jenny is a doctor working in a small practice in Liège, the Belgium city that serves as the setting for so many Dardenne films. One night, after hours, she makes a fatal decision – she ignores the buzzing on the intercom outside the practice, reasoning that a tired doctor is liable to make mistakes.

This split-second choice comes back to haunt her when she discovers that the person outside was not a would-be patient but a young African immigrant woman in distress. The police find her body, with no identification papers, near the freeway the next day. Distraught with guilt, Jenny decides to discover this luckless soul’s identity. Her journey that takes her into murky territory, including a disturbing encounter with Dardenne regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier.

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Styling the film as a low-key detective yarn, the Dardennes never quite get this right, with the procedural element of the story clearly low on their list of priorities. But with a committed and spirited performance from Haenel as the forceful medic, the sibling filmmakers still have a great engine with which to drive their story.

As ever, their unsentimental brand of social-realism is expertly rendered. Even if the end result is not quite as punchy as earlier films, a minor Dardenne work is still something that demands your attention.

The Unknown Girl opens on July 13

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