Inspector Jules Maigret is no stranger to screen adaptations. The world-weary yet astute detective has been played by a stream of film and television actors in both French and English since his first appearance in print in 1931.

Maigret stands beside contemporaries such as Poirot, Dalgliesh and Marlowe as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated fictional detectives. Belgian-French author George Simenon wrote 75 novels featuring the pensive inspector, with the 1954 classic Maigret and the Dead Girl, renowned as one of his finest works. Yet director Patrice Leconte’s new retelling is more an atmospheric character portrait of the iconic detective than a faithful literary adaptation.

Set in Paris in 1953, the film opens with the body of a beautiful young woman discovered at Place Ventimille. It’s a gruesome scene, the body stabbed numerous times. But without a handbag or witnesses, there is no way to identify her. The only clue is her couture evening gown.

From this slender lead, Maigret (Depardieu) begins to piece together her story, both the events leading to her death and the longer, equally tragic tale of her life.

Depardieu’s Maigret is totally convincing. He inhabits the role, perfectly conjuring the detective’s end-of-career weariness and distinctive style of quiet, intense observation. Maigret is the original criminal profiler, bringing a deep understanding of human psychology to his investigations.

Patient, methodical and intuitive, the detective soon uncovers the dead woman’s identity. Drawn from the countryside to post-war Paris with hopes of fame and fortune, she was one of many similarly idealistic young women who find themselves living in dire poverty.

Maigret encounters Betty (Jade Labeste), a young woman who resembles the victim both physically and in her desperate living conditions. In contrast, the victim’s friend, Jeanine (Mélanie Bernier), is a rare success story, managing to land both a film career and a rich fiancé (Pierre Moure). As Maigret digs deeper into these women’s stories, he gradually finds himself as invested in their lives as he is in solving the crime.

Leconte’s directorial magic lies in his ability to evoke atmosphere, and in Maigret we are given a haunting insight into the immense divide between Parisian social classes in the post-war era. The crafting of mid-1950s Paris is simultaneously beautiful and terrible – the excesses of the elite and the desperation of the poor pitilessly depicted.

Film-goers expecting the traditional rollercoaster plotline of a mystery thriller replete with end-twists and red herrings may be disappointed. Lovers of Simenon’s Maigret novels will find the storyline veers from the book within the first few minutes and doesn’t look back. But what this film does offer is a faithful and nuanced portrait of a beloved character relying on observation, empathy and psychology in place of a racing plot and violent action.

While the film strays from both genre expectations and loyal literary adaptation, there is much to enjoy in this tightly plotted and atmospheric film. Leconte pays loving tribute to Simenon’s vast and classic oeuvre with devotion to character, rich ambience, and a great story skilfully told.

Maigret is showing in cinemas nationally from May 26.  

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.