Le Havre is one of those quintessentially continental slices of whimsy that drops in to your local arthouse cinema every couple of months or so. Imagine if Nick Park decided to switch from stop-motion to live-action films, and remade Casablanca in a rundown port city in the present day. All that’s missing is a talking penguin.
André Wilms stars as elderly shoe shiner Marcel Marx, who takes young illegal immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) in to his home after the boy evades capture by the port authorities. How Marcel goes about trying to reunite him with his mother in London is a strangely sweet story, neither sentimental nor political. The townsfolk who assist Marcel – a baker, a greengrocer, even a washed-up rock star – are as uncomplicated as Marcel himself. Only Jean-Pierre Darroussin as the inspector on the child’s trail has anything like a character arc. This is not a film that deals in shades of grey – what you see is what you get. And in its old-fashioned way, it’s rather charming.
Director Aki Kaurismäki (whose other films I have yet to see) has a clear talent for deadpan humour, and isn’t afraid to let scenes run to within touching distance of the absurd; witness the inspector buying a pineapple, or rock star Little Bob’s fundraising gig. He also captures the rundown feel of the port town very well, the camera finding beauty in several unlikely places. It won’t be for everyone, but Le Havre is definitely worth your time.