The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl is the latest film from the Belgian Dardenne brothers, those purveyors of social realism who achieved critical and commercial acclaim most recently for their 2014 film Two Days, One Night, which starred Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a young woman who, following an absence from work due to mental illness, found herself battling to return to her job and calling upon her colleagues for help. Like that film, The Unknown Girl places a similarly determined young woman, in the shape of a compelling Adèle Haenel, on an all consuming quest – in this case an attempt to learn the identity of the eponymous character.

Haenel stars as Dr Jenny Davin, a young GP who is working as a locum at a modest practice in the shabby district of Liège. Jenny is an efficient professional woman of ambition; we know this because she works her houseman Julien hard in an effort to ensure he will be the best doctor possible, and because she’s also about to make the great leap to the Kennedy Centre, a much smarter and more prestigious practice. After a long day at work, Jenny is warning Julien against becoming too emotionally involved with the patients in his care when the intercom to the front door sounds to signify a caller wishes to use the surgery. Jenny, distracted by a phone call with her new employers and irritated by Julien’s sensitivity, tells the houseman to ignore the caller as they are already an hour over the practice’s working hours for that day. It’s a decision that will come to haunt Jenny for the rest of the film.

The following day, the body of an unidentified young black girl with a head injury is found on the banks of the Meuse. Security camera footage shows that it was this deceased girl who had called on the surgery, seeking Jenny’s help, before she was injured. But no one at the surgery knows who this young girl was. Wracked with guilt and possessing a strong social conscience, Jenny resolves to find out the girl’s identity and ensure she receives a proper burial rather than the fate of a lonely, unmarked grave that would otherwise await her.
Turning investigator, she begins to ask the town and soon realises that the answer may lie with some of her patients. However, it is clear that some of them lack the same sense of social conscience, moral duty or just plain guilt, that she displays. Jenny’s quest has a distinctive effect on her character; in immersing herself deep within the community, she begins to consider the social ailments of those who call upon the surgery, and the way secrets can work against a person like a crippling virus. These problems are ones which cannot be identified via a medical dictionary or solved by a prescription, but are clearly just as serious and in need of her help as any other ills. It is the titular unknown girl then who serves as a wake up call for Jenny – perhaps reminding her of the reason why she entered medicine in the first place. With this new commitment and the desire to find the truth, it isn’t long before Jenny turns down her contract with the swanky Kennedy Centre in order to stay on at the run-down Liège practice. In contrast, the events of that evening seem to have the opposite effect on Julien who feels that he can no longer practice medicine or complete his studies. Therefore, Jenny must commit to a secondary quest in an effort to change his mind and prove to him that it perhaps isn’t really possible or indeed wise to truly dissociate their emotions when dealing with people.
 If you’re thinking this plot may sound a little slight, the kind of thing that might trouble the odd two-parter of daytime soap Doctors, then you’d be right. There isn’t an awful lot more to The Unknown Girl than the details I have laid out. But there’s nothing wrong with that kind of content, especially when the quality is leaps and bounds above any generic medical soap and the message of community and solidarity is so integral. For a start, the now traditional hand held camerawork and naturalistic lighting employed by the Dardenne brothers is once again on display here to satisfying effect, leaving audiences feeling like voyeurs of real situations or at the very least viewers of a day-in-the-life documentary.
 This realistic intensity is further accomplished by the naturalistic acting style of all involved but, in reality, this is Adèle Haenel’s film and she should receive the appropriate credit for creating such a well-rounded, sympathetic and believable person as she makes the change from a slight cold fish to dedicated and courageous searcher of the truth in the most imperceptible of ways. It’s easy to imagine the same kind of characterisation in a Hollywood movie, ramped up to eleven, showing us a hard nosed professional woman at the start of the movie who is slowly softened and brought in touch with her conscience over the course of her ‘journey’ across the film. But that’s Hollywood, and thankfully the Dardenne brothers fish in much more realistic waters.


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