Layla M. - Film review

Dutch/Flemish movies

by Darren Arnold

Layla M. (seen at the 2016 London Film Festival) is the new film from director Mijke de Jong, and it covers a subject that’s never far from the news: the radicalisation of young Muslims. 

De Jong is best known for her 2004 film BlueBird, which dealt with the subject of bullying; between that film and Layla M. she managed to win a Gouden Kalf for 2007’s Tussenstand, a film which examined the effects of divorce on a child.  Any viewer of Layla M. who’s familiar with de Jong’s previous work will immediately pick out the director’s preoccupations with families, relationships and friendships, all of which are present here.
The title character in Layla M. is a bright Amsterdam teenager from a caring, well-integrated family of Moroccan immigrants, yet she somehow finds herself in one big mess by the time the closing credits roll.  Layla is someone who’s drawn to oppose injustice wherever she finds it, be it on a football field or out in wider Dutch society, where the burqa ban is fuelling a most heated debate.  In her quest for equality, Layla’s online activities lead her to Abdel, another young Muslim, and one who promises he’ll be a perfect husband.  Abandoning her studies, Layla marries Abdel and the newlyweds leave the Netherlands for the Middle East (via a jihadist training camp in Belgium), where Layla soon discovers that her life there isn’t going to be one of equality but is rather an existence where women come a distant second to men, and her time is spent on little more than domestic duties.
De Jong’s film covers some very topical material, and it always manages to engage the viewer, but there’s a nagging feeling that it’s all just a bit too simplistic, and when this sense is coupled with the rather drab visuals we’re left with something that isn’t much better than an average TV movie.  It’s a well-meaning film, but given that what unfolds is so obviously telegraphed to the audience, you can’t help but wonder why an intelligent girl such as Layla doesn’t see what’s coming.  Although, perhaps that’s the point that’s being made about radicalisation?  It’s also not clear as to what we’re supposed to feel about the main character, or even what the director feels. 
In any event, Layla M. does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, and its rather clunky handling of a sensitive subject matter makes for an unsatisfying, if far from unbearable, experience.


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