||The drolly deadpan style of writer-director Aki Kaurismaki is what saves his latest film, “Le Havre,” from mawkishness. The simple plot—about a shoeshine man in the Norman port who helps a young African boy being pursued by immigration authorities escape to his mother in England—is the sort of scenario that invites maudlin treatment. But Kaurismaki’s touch is so light and his ensemble cast so free of histrionics that the picture comes across as a charming fable rather than a heavy-handed screed. Even the presence of a scene-stealing dog doesn’t tip the balance into bathos.
Tall, rigidly controlled Andre Wilms stars as Marcel Marx—notice that last name. He shines shoes at the train terminal, and wherever else he finds customers, alongside his equally undemonstrative pal Chang (Quoc-dung Nguyen), who—it’s eventually revealed—is a Vietnamese illegal posing as a Chinese. The plot kicks in when the Javert-like Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a stickler for the rules, discovers a host of African refugees being smuggled into the country in a cargo container. He detains most of them and sends them off to refugee camps, but one youngster, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), bolts away. Marcel happens upon him and gives him food, partially because of dislike for Monet but mostly because he’s simply the sort of person on the economic margins of society who’s naturally disposed to helping those even worse off than himself.
Meanwhile Marcel’s dutiful, loving wife Arietty (Kati Outinen) falls ill and has to be rushed to the hospital. She’s informed that her condition is critical and when reminded by the kindly doctor that miracles do happen, replies—in what’s really the film’s signature line—“Not in my neighborhood.” It turns out she’s wrong, because not only do Marcel’s neighbors—sometimes unexpectedly—pitch in to help when he takes Idrissa in, but aid him in arranging a benefit concert to raise money for the boy to be smuggled across the Channel. That involves arranging a rapprochement between local singer Little Bob (Roberto Piazza) with his wife, and leads to a typically oddball musical interlude.
The culmination of it all is a low-key rush to the docks with the cops in pursuit, ending with the miraculous transformation of one character from villain to hero as Idrissa goes on his way to London. But that’s only the first miracle, as Max’s visit to Arietty in the hospital suggests that, at least in the confines of the small fantasy universe Kaurismaki fashions here, kindness and generosity carry their own reward.
“Le Havre” is clearly a kind of modern fairy-tale, but one that studiously avoids laying on the magical element too thick. The atmosphere it creates can hardly be termed naturalistic—the halting, deliberate rhythms the director favors militate against that—but neither does it seem otherworldly. The characters aren’t ordinary, but neither are they ostentatiously colorful or bizarre, and the cast uniformly manage the slightly off-kilter line readings that bring out the low-key humor in the script. And Kaurismaki’s usual craft team unobtrusively but effectively support the director’s idiosyncratic vision.
This is no doubt a message movie, but it delivers its message in an unforced, quirky way that leaves you feeling as though you’ve been pleasurably cajoled rather than harangued.