The Charmer

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Charmer
"Remarkably adept in balancing audience sympathies and bold in its refusal to choose the most easily justified routes for its characters, The Charmer is a powerful piece of cinema." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) is living in Denmark. He tells people he’s been there for more than two years. Perhaps it’s true. At any rate, he might not be able to stay there much longer. The girlfriend he’s been living with has told him that she feels suffocated – he got so close to her so quickly, overwhelmed her. So she has left him (with an awful finality he cannot yet guess) and now he has no-one to co-sign his application to stay in the country on family grounds. So he spends his nights in wine bars (“Nobody here likes the wine”), desperately trying to find a woman who wants the serious relationship that will save him from deportation.

Thanks to an intense performance from Esmaili, Esmail’s anxiety is palpable. In one scene, we see him at the hostels where he’s staying when officials arrive to take another man away. The whole hostel reeks of fear, the men there living on borrowed time, some of them doubtless afraid of detention, torture or worse should they be sent ‘home’. Esmail tells no-one of his personal circumstances and no-one pries, even when aware of his legal status, because the possibilities are too depressing to think about. Yet whilst we feel for him, it’s impossible not to be aware of the hurt he’s causing, and could potentially cause, to the women with whom he gets involved.

Copy picture

In Esmail’s favour is that fact that he’s a fairly good looking guy, and he can turn on the charm very effectively when he makes the effort, though it gets harder to do so as he becomes more afraid. Going against him is the fact that some women are wise to his act and others unintentionally waste his time, assuming he’s just looking for a no-strings fuck and taking advantage of that whilst their long term partners are away. But life gets much more complicated when he meets Sarah (Soho Rezanejad), herself the child of Iranian immigrants, and a natural spark emerges between them. Wise to his act, Sarah teases him about it even as she invites him to a party, even as she introduces him to her mother. Enamoured with her, he begins to forget his quest. Perhaps she will be the one to save him, anyway. But Esmail has a secret that means falling in love could be the worst outcome of all.

Remarkably adept in balancing audience sympathies and bold in its refusal to choose the most easily justified routes for its characters, The Charmer is a powerful piece of cinema. It’s beautifully shot, the camera up close to the characters in almost every scene, forcing us into an intimacy with them that is sometimes alluring and sometimes acutely unpleasant. Its genius lies in the way that it persuades the viewer to stay connected through revelations that might, if arriving earlier, have produced a very different reaction. And by refusing to play it safe, it is much more effective in illustrating the humanity of migrants and challenging the distorting impact of borders on human lives.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2018
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An intense psychological drama about a young Iranian man who is desperately trying to meet women who can secure his stay in Denmark.


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