REVIEW: Night Shift (2020)

nightshift_posterThree Paris police officers have their morality sorely tested in Anne Fontaine’s considered and powerful drama Night Shift (aka Police). Virginie (Viriginie Efira) has fallen pregnant to a fellow officer, and is planning for an abortion. The officer in question, Aristide (Omar Sy) is in growing conflict with his colleague Erik (Grégory Gadebois) – a weary police veteran struggling with a failing marriage and an alcohol problem. When all three officers sign up for a special assignment to escort a rejected refugee to the airport, their loyalty is put into question when they learn the  man (Payman Maadi) will be executed by his own government on arrival.

Night Shift feels deeply topical, as it reflects upon France’s treatment of international refugees – a topic that should resonate with Australian viewers in particular, given our own government’s mishandling of the issue over the past two decades. It is all well and good to form one’s own opinion of how to deal with it, but it is another matter entirely to be asked to drive a human being to near-certain death. How does it reflect on a police officer’s role to legally stand aside and allow someone to be murdered? Which is the greater crime, and how willing can someone be to destroy their career to save a life?

It is enough fodder for a feature film as is, but Fontaine (with co-writer Claire Barre) devotes much of the film’s first half to establishing her four lead characters and giving them overlapping problems and issues of their own. All three officers are demonstrated to be imperfect and conflicted. Seeds of conflict between each of them are layered gently into the narrative, to be let alight later in the film. They are not really generate for plot reasons either, and very little is emotionally resolved by the film’s conclusion. It is all generated for depth and realism. Fontaine exploits them to make the characters seem real.

Such strong characters lead to equally strong performances. Omar Sy is easily the most famous actor here for international audiences, and brings his enormous charisma and presence to bear on the flashiest of the four protagonists. Grégory Gadebois brings a brilliant unspoken sorrow and sense of defeat to Erik, recognisable to anyone who has ground down by a system to the point of no longer standing for anything except one’s orders. Payman Maadi is excellent as Tohirov, a Kajik refugee terrified of repatriation and death, and entirely isolated by his lack of French. It is a difficult job for an actor to express an entire emotional range without reliant on dialogue. While the character is ultimately unknowable, Maadi gives Tohirov dignity, sympathy, and an authentic sense of growing terror.

Virginie Efira is, however, the ultimate standout among the cast. She makes the fictional Virginie a hugely effective blend of contradictions: broken but defiant, cynical yet idealistic, and littered with small reactions and subtle tics. Most importantly she feels real without coming across as overly heroic or tediously weak. It seems very likely that international audiences are going to see more of Efira in future; she has ‘future star’ written across her performance here.

Night Shift is a sharp, intelligent drama with a keen contemporary relevance. It asks vital questions with no easy answers. It is well written, well directed, and well performed.

Night Shift is currently playing across Australia as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021. Click here for more information.

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