The Unknown Girl: unsatisfying mystery, impressive empathy

Unknown Girl
3 Stars (3 / 5)
Sherlock Holmes was a doctor – or at least the real-life inspiration for him was, Dr. Joseph Bell; a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, at which Conan Doyle trained.

From that fertile wellspring there are, of course, innumerable adaptations, both period and modern, as well as House, weekly detective stories well-disguised as a medical procedural.

The Unknown Girl, the latest offering from Belgian auteurs the Dardenne Brothers, is a slice of social realism disguised, albeit thinly, as a detective story. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) works long hours at a walk-in clinic in Liège. Invested in her patient’s well-being but emotionally detached, she stresses the importance of making a sound diagnosis. For Jenny it seems to be all about caring within the lines.

While schooling her intractable junior, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), on this one evening, she refuses to answer the intercom. The next day the police come calling: an unknown girl has been found dead by the riverside and. As CCTV footage reveals, it was she who buzzed the clinic’s door.

The Dardennes closely capture Jenny’s unspoken guilt – a silent tear as she watches said footage; tracking after her as, dressed in a thick herringbone coat and equipped with nothing more than a screen-grab, she attempts to uncover the girl’s identity, to contact the girl’s family, or at very least she her buried under her own name. Even the threat of violence will not deter her – she gets that at work sometimes.

Mostly, though, Jenny’s job sees her making house-calls to many sorts of people, mostly sick and struggling – stocky, middle-aged guys with diabetes (Jean-Michel Balthazar); a bald-headed kid with chemo, played by The Kid With The Bike‘s Thomas Doret.

Even with her knitted eyebrows and unflinching glare, she clearly has empathy; however outwardly unemotive she might be. Check out that slight smile when she hears some good news about a patient. They’re are always sending her away with food.

It’s understandable when the police seem apathetic; social services are unhelpful; some of her patients are afraid to go to the hospital, however mistakenly, for fear of being deported. Even so, it seems unlikely that any of her patients might prove the key to the mystery of the unknown girl. Can’t the accelerating pulse of dyspeptic teenager Bryan (Louka Minnella) be down Jenny staring into his eyes?

As such, the final reveal when it comes it unsatisfying; holding up neither psychologically or geographically. The central mystery of the film’s plot is ultimately less interesting than a well-observed depiction of what it means to care for people on a daily basis.

In the case of The Unknown Girl that’s enough.

The Unknown Girl is available on DVD & BluRay from Curzon Artificial Eye. You can purchase it here.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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