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Welcome says a sign above a shop window in Calais, the sharpest irony in this stunning portrait of racism and people smuggling in northern Europe. For if there’s one thing the people, certainly the authorities, of France are not, is welcoming. Clandestines, as they refer to what we ignominiously call illegals, blight the town as they line up to make the crossing to Britain. Anyone suspected of aiding or abetting them, even an act as innocent as offering food or shelter, are hauled into the local gendarmerie for questioning. “This is where it starts,” a bilious shopkeeper is warned.

So it is for Simon (Vincent Lindon), a middle aged swimming instructor who takes teenage Bilal (Firay Ayverdi) under his wing in an uncharacteristic slug of altruism. The Kurdish refugee is determined to reunite with his girlfriend in London whose father refuses to help the unsuitable boy. Simon offers both food and shelter, then lessons despite Bilal’s crazy motivation: he sees swimming the channel as his only option. Pending a divorce from his activist wife, Simon’s own motivation is less humanitarian, at least at first.

Against this backdrop, writer/director Phillippe Loiret has crafted a compassionate and inspired film, an extraordinary account of human bonding. As both men wrestle with broken hearts and dislocation, Loiret broadens his theme to create a riveting drama about compassion in adversity, relationships that survive and build across divisions of culture, age and geography: Franco-Kurdish, mentor-student, father-son.

Central to this astounding success are riveting performances by London and newcomer Ayverdi. Crisp, natural interpretations work with a simple elegance to elevate Loiret’s social-realist approach. The result is a film that tosses audiences through an emotional wringer, creating an intense, challenging and surprisingly warm experience that questions the very concept of ‘welcome’.

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