Luchini plays Judge Racine. He’s presiding over a case and at first the audience isn’t sure whether he’s in town specifically for the trial. Feeling fluey, we watch him head not for home, but an anonymous hotel and then witness him take a pratfall as he heads out in search of medication. It’s only the following day, when he overhears two colleagues gossiping, that we learn his wife’s kicked him out of the family home.
The gossip is a revelation – he realises that he has a reputation as a cold fish and that he is far from popular in court. Yet there is little to justify such a reputation. He seems like your typical workaholic legal bod, sure, but with his secretary and jurors he comes across as fair and approachable, his toothy smile making brief appearances as he talks them through their tasks.
Vincent, who wrote the screenplay, has created a simple tale. We have the trial of a man accused of killing his 7-month-old child playing alongside the judge’s personal story, which includes a blossoming relationship between him and one of the jurors, a Danish woman called Ditte (Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame). Ditte was Racine’s doctor when he was hospitalised and although her relationship was strictly professional, she had a profound emotional effect on the judge. What we and the characters have to understand is whether his feelings are founded on more than morphine-induced idolatry and if Ditte is prepared to take the doctor-patient relationship to a new level.
And that’s it: on the one hand a courtroom drama and on the other a May-December romance. Vincent delves into the minutiae of the French legal system without being overly didactic and there are plenty of interesting minor characters in the form of the defendant, his estranged wife and the various jurors and witnesses.
Like the writing, the courtroom is crisp and modern, though our judge maintains the scarlet cloak and ermine of old, and one of the characters makes the somewhat clichéd analogy of the courtroom as theatre.
So what makes this film work? Predominantly it’s thanks to Luchini’s sympathetic Racine, a beautifully written character with just the right amount of cantankerousness and humour, his grin literally goofy and disarming. The assembled mix of characters that all good courtroom dramas can hold are here while Ditte’s relationship with her teenage daughter is utterly believable – and how refreshing to see a screen teen who is not vile or problematic.
Whether that’s enough to pick up a Golden Lion is debatable, but this is a fine work that would appeal to a wide audience.