WelcomeGreen lightWelcome is director Philippe Lioret’s sad indictment on the plight of illegal immigrants in France, a wretched story of a young Iraq-Kurdish man’s determination to make it to the UK by any means possible. The tale of Bilal’s (Firat Avyerdi) determination to reunite with his girlfriend by swimming across the English Channel presents a powerful polemic told through the guise of social realism. Like Joshua Marston’s devastating Maria Full of Grace (2004), the film captures a squeamishly authentic portrayal of lives caught in uncompromising political realities.

Welcome provoked a national discussion in France about the country’s contentious immigration policies, particularly its grim anti-Samaritan laws designed to prevent locals aiding refugees. Given the success Lioret had in drawing humanitarian issues into the public limelight, Australian advocates for refugees and asylum seekers may wish to take note: it’s now obvious, if it wasn’t already, that considerable scope exists for a compassionate film about distressed people risking life and limb to come to Australia on leaky boats. In a country where a tough stance on immigration is overwhelmingly the consensus view, a powerful film could have a substantial impact in reshaping the debate or at least adding to the discourse.

After an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle himself into the UK using a ghastly technique involving joining a group of stowaways who hide in a truck and cover their heads with plastic bags, Bilal takes up swimming lessons in pursuit of his perilous challenge.

His reluctant instructor is the weary, sleepy looking Simon Calmat (Vincent Lindon), who slowly becomes the film’s essential character, a stoic but conscientious figure who serves as the audience’s moral compass. Simon tells Bilal that attempting the swim is crazy: it’s too long, too far, too cold. Bilal’s dismissive response reminded me of a quote from Vincent (Ethan Hawke) in Gattaca (1997): “I never saved anything for the swim back.”

But make no mistake: this story has no training montages, no “you can do it” sloganeering, no races across the finishing line, no bursts of inspirational music. Lioret builds a sobering sense of realism and refuses to jeopardise it with anything vaguely resembling fist in the air emotions or cheap shocks, to the point at which the film’s constrained dramatics almost become a vice – a little too temperate, a little too discreet.

In a standout performance, Vincent Lindon’s portrayal of Simon captures in greys and subtleties a character who moves out of his moral comfort zone to become almost but not quite a hero; more a compassionate sympathiser. Dramatically Lindon hits all the right notes, crafting a hard-edged performance with a soft centre. But all the performances resonate realistically and the dramas in Welcome are tightly knit and precisely developed. Lioret’s film, which carefully extends its sense of moral righteousness as the story progresses, will not be easily forgotten.

Welcome’s Australian theatrical release date: April 1, 2010.