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The Unknown Girl Review

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Idealistic young doctor Jenny Devin (Adèle Haenel) is troubled by the fate of a panicked woman she’d failed to let into her surgery late one night. Determined to find out what happened to her, she begins her own investigation.

★★★★★

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ latest social realist drama sees the siblings veer surprisingly close to genre terrain. There’s a crime at its heart, a mystery to be solved and a determined gumshoe for a protagonist. There’s cops, gangsters and even a car chase (albeit involving a small scooter). But before you imagine that the Belgian filmmakers have suddenly gone all CSI: Liège on us, the crime leads not into a police thriller but another humanist odyssey along a small community’s fault lines.

The sleuth in question is twentysomething doctor Davin (Adèle Haenel), a hardworking medic in a small community clinic. We meet her in her surgery chastising an oversensitive intern (Olivier Bonnaud) for being too emotionally involved in the patients’ welfare. It’s ironic, as it turns out, because she’s soon obsessively investigating the fate of the desperate immigrant she’d failed to let into her clinic late one night. The woman has since been found dead, but who is responsible and to what lengths will she go to find out her identity? Soon the dogged GP is exposing guilty secrets and making potentially dangerous folk twitchy. While the amateur sleuthing plays out in the same concrete suburb of Seraing that back-dropped Two Days, One Night and The Kid With The Bike, this one lacks the bite and purpose of those two impassioned quest movies. Lacking the fire of Marion Cotillard’s desperate worker in the former, Haenel’s heroine is a more subdued focal point as she bumps from one rebuttal to rebuttal in her search for clues. What’s driving her, aside from a guilty conscience, is cloudy. A subplot with the intern she trying to persuade not to jack in the medical profession feels like a needless digression.

Where the drama gathers strength is in Davin’s quiet encounters with the patients, locals and police who may (or may not) help her uncover the dead woman’s identify. The Dardennes use these interactions to softly explore the ways in which a community opens and closes itself to outsiders. It’s a hard-scrabble world where poverty may be only a single misstep away. Like Ken Loach, the filmmaking brothers are past masters of capturing the jittery cadence of life on this edge and their ear for the anxieties of working folk adds moments of genuine pathos to this unlikely social realist procedural.

The Unknown Girl may be a middling effort by the Dardennes’ high standards but it’s still an involving, thoughtful watch.

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