Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Sometimes it is said that the past is a foreign country and this is doubly true for Canadian twins Jeanne and Simon who, following the death of their mother, discover she held a long-buried secret. The reading of her will is no simple affair, with their notary handing over an envelope to each of them along with their mother's dying wish - she wants Jeanne to find their father and give him her missive and Simon to locate their brother and do likewise. This comes as an emotional shock to the system for the pair who believed their father long dead and had no notion of any siblings. But while Simon kicks against the idea of shining a light into the corners of the past, Jeanne becomes determined to seek the truth, heading back to her mother's homeland in the Middle East with little more than a photo to help her.

Denis Villeneuve's film - which is nominated in the best foreign language category of the Oscars this year - then unfolds during two different time periods. In one, Jeanne attempts to hunt the ghost of her mother's past, while in the other we see her mother as she was in her youth, when internal conflict tore apart both her family and her life.

In adapting Wajdi Mouawad's play, Villeneuve embraces melodrama to explore hatred that exists for almost arbitrary reasons and the turmoil of identity. But while many scenes have an emotional whiplash to them, this heightened, slightly stagey, approach to the characters' feelings, lends others an unfortunate air of unreality. Segments accompanied by mournful modern pop also feel more akin to a music video than an integral part of the action.

There is a deliberate move on Villeneuve's part to initially avoid rooting the action in a particular country - although it becomes clear eventually that it is Lebanon. This is doubtless intended to suggest a sort of Middle Eastern 'everyplace' but while this is a worthy intention it proves quite confusing initially as the viewer spends time wondering where on earth we are rather than concentrating on the plot twists at hand. And there are certainly twists aplenty, although it is the more subtle, incidental ones - a brutal act of violence on a bus, a street scene with a sniper - that are the most powerful emotionally, in contrast to many of the larger plot moves, which suffer from being telegraphed too soon.

The acting is similarly hit and miss. Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin holds the attention with her portrayal of Jeanne and her physical similarity to Lubna Azabal, who plays her mother Nawal, makes it easy to believe the familial bond. Azabal herself is, though called upon for a little too much in the way of melodrama, also engaging in a key role. It is fortunate, however, that the second twin Simon has a much less important part to play, as Maxim Gaudette's performance is stilted to start with and made to feel much worse in the face of the heavy emoting from the characters around him.

Though providing food for thought regarding the nature of conflict and how easy it is to tear a community apart, Villeneuve's heavy-handed approach to metaphor will not be for everyone and the convolutions of the timeline, in particular, leave you wondering how some of the twists are even possible.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2011
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A mother's past sends her twin children on a Middle Eastern odyssey.
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Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Denis Villeneuve with the collaboration of Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne, based on a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad

Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allen Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Bader Alami, Karim Babin, Yousef Shweihat

Year: 2010

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada

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