Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

With: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

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Runtime: 95 minutes. French, with subtitles

ANY competent filmmaker can fake sincerity. Simplicity, however, is a fiendishly difficult trick to manage. Only the best magicians can put a plain idea in the hat and pull out something extraordinary. Belgian directing brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are such conjurers, and their latest drama, Two Days, One Night, shows them at their most beguiling.

In this case, the simple idea is not the theft of a bicycle but the potential loss of a job. From such modest beginnings, and aided by a powerhouse performance from Marion Cotillard, do the Dardennes craft a picture that says more about our economic times than any number of think tank reports. If that makes Two Days, One Night sound like tough going, the kind of issues-laden drama made by Ken Loach in his Glasgow period, it is anything but. The lightness of touch deployed by the makers of The Kid with a Bike, and the Palme d'Or winners L'Enfant and Rosetta, means that what is simple also turns out to be one of the year's most stirring films.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman employed by a nondescript firm in a European cookie cutter commuter town. Sandra has a problem. The firm that employs her tells its workforce that they have to make a choice. They can have their 1,000 Euro bonus, but only if one person goes from the payroll. That person is Sandra. It is not clear if this is a case of last in, first out, or if Sandra is a target for other reasons. Having been off work with stress and depression, she is vulnerable on any number of counts.

The workforce has voted and opted to take the cash, but Sandra's friend convinces the boss that the ballot was flawed and asks that it be run again. The plea is delivered on a Friday and a new vote set for Monday. So the titular countdown begins. Henry Fonda had 11 angry jurors to convince. Sandra has two days and one night to change the minds of 16 colleagues who are variously scared for their own jobs, greedy, desperate, or otherwise in need. Some might reckon Fonda had it easier.

Sandra's initial reaction is to pull the duvet over her head and give up, but her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) will not let her. There are addresses to find and visits to be paid if Sandra is to stand any chance of keeping her job. As she goes from door to door like the country's least popular politician she meets a range of reactions, most of them predictable, but every visit, no matter how brief, manages to tell a story about the way many people live and work now. No one gives worthy speeches about stagnant wages, rising living costs and job insecurity, but it is there in their anxious, angry, or embarrassed faces. Some are simply glad to have the money and happy that it is Sandra facing the dole queue and not them. This is human nature as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be.

Cotillard is by far the most impressive French actor of her generation, a performer as much at ease in Hollywood blockbusters such as The Dark Knight and Inception as she is at the French, art house end of the market with the likes of La Vie en Rose and Rust and Bone. Here, as she puts the fragile Sandra together again and sends her on her odyssey, she is the model of restrained desperation and dignity put to the test.

The Dardennes, having given her the landscape in which to operate, wisely leave her to it. She is the star here, but a less starry performance it would be hard to imagine, so convincing is she as an ordinary working mother. For her next trick she will be playing Lady Macbeth to Michael Fassbender's king. If, as the Dardennes do here, she screws her courage to the sticking place, she will not fail. Simple.

Glasgow Film Theatre, tomorrow-August 28; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Belmont, Aberdeen, DCA, Dundee, tomorrow-September 4.