Starring: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier
Young doctor Jenny Davin (Haenel) is very good at her job, and one of the reasons for this is that she maintains her professionalism by controlling her emotions. One night, soon after the surgery has closed the door bell rings, but Jenny refuses to answer it. However, the next day Jenny discovers that the girl who rang the bell has been found dead, and has no documents on her that identify her. Riddled with guilt, Jenny embarks on a crusade to find out the identity of the girl and what happened to her.
If there are any directors working presently that understand the concept of pure human drama, then it is the Belgian Dardenne brothers. They have an uncanny ability to take a simple story and make it deeply compelling and engaging. In this case the story is based on a simple, and very understandable action, that has deeply unfortunate and tragic results.
When telling a story, especially through the medium of film, the most important thing is to give us characters that we can engage with and care about, and the Dardenne brothers are the masters of this. Though admittedly The Unknown Girl is unfortunately not their best or most satisfying film (mainly down to some structural problems in its final third) it is still overall a deeply compelling and emotionally involving human drama made with their thoroughly effective ‘less-is-more’ approach.
Holding the film together is an exceptional central performance from Adèle Haenel. Appearing in every scene, the Dardenne brothers keep the camera tightly on her face and often resort to long, single takes. This trademark naturalistic visual style, along with equally naturalistic dialogue helps us feel the suffocating internal guilt that drives her to play amateur sleuth, as we discover the facts about this poor kill that died as she does. Her perfectly understated performance sums up these internal emotions she has that constantly haunt her. This makes the drama very compelling as we want her to find out and seek some form of personal catharsis.
The performances and naturalistic filmmaking style certainly bring many moments of genuine tension, as Jenny makes decisions that could potentially risk her career and personal safety. It is a very effective execution of what is a simple premise, however it is in the simplicity that makes the narrative so engaging as we also seek the answers that the protagonist does, but also care for her on a personal level.
For the first two thirds The Unknown Girl is certainly nothing short of gripping, but with stories of this kind, finding a suitable ending is certainly a challenge for the filmmakers, and it is in the final third that the drama starts to fall apart somewhat. Though it certainly doesn’t completely undermine all the hard work of the first two thirds, some elements of the plot and the inevitable revelations do feel like contrived and clichéd middle of the road melodrama, and dare I say it, a little lazy.
Though the ending certainly still satisfies on some levels and its overall tone is appropriate, there are elements of the plot that just are a little disappointing and unsatisfying. However, there is no denying that The Unknown Girl is still very much overall a gripping and engaging drama.
Though a slightly messy final third prevents it from being up there with their best films; The Unknown Girl is still thanks to the Dardenne brothers trademark naturalistic style and a superb central performance, a gripping and engaging human drama.