Les Misérables – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 44 minutes, Director – Ladj Ly

New to Montfermeil, Paris and the anti-crime brigade a police officer (Damien Bonnard) soon discovers an angered world of gang rivalries, tough cops and racial tensions on the French streets.

The 2018 World Cup. There’s joy in the air of the streets of France, people coming together; bringing peace and harmony as the country celebrates the victory of the French team. However, darkness isn’t far away. Set after the World Cup and inspired by 2008 Parisian riots documentarian and short maker Ladj Ly throws new-to-the-area police officer Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) into a world of high gang related tensions and power-abusing cops. For much of his first day encountering squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Brigadier Gwada (Djebril Zonga) Ruiz remains quiet. Sat in the back seat with little to comment on, yet his face reads all as he notices the behaviour of his colleagues – especially leader Chris.

Chris regularly abuses his powers, not properly following the rules in all manner of situations – on one occasion seemingly doing so just to make the girl he’s searching at a bus stop feel uncomfortable. It’s testament to Manenti’s startling performance that the viewer also manages to feel this discomfort, and tension whenever he appears on screen. With the streets of Montfermeil filled with rival gangs, seemingly always at each others throats its almost a necessity to be careful and always aware of your actions, however Chris doesn’t seem to care, while Gwada goes along with things as if he’s used to this behaviour, although somewhat reluctantly, and Ruiz watches in astonishment as all this goes against what he knows and has been taught. Tensions truly reach a peak, however, after the theft of a lion cub from the circus that has recently arrived in town. Fingers are instantly pointed while the police can do little until the real culprit – a young child (Issa Perica) – is worked out and found.

While the constant feuds between gangs are already enough the rising racial tensions in the streets – racist abuse casually being spat out in enraged assaults in the middle of the street – add to the violence and stresses that everyone faces. We come across various faces over the course of the narrative, yet spend enough time with each figure to understand who they are and what they stand for; all adding to the tension that the film gradually builds up until it’s big releases – in some respects there are two major stages and releases of the course of the piece. All the chaos as the riots and disputes increase is captured by Ly in a documentary style. The edits and cuts between various angles and perspectives are, on some occasions, only just allowed to get into focus before a new change. You know exactly what’s going on and are thrown into the centre of it, much like Ruiz – and to an extent his colleagues – is.

As all the characters come together and the narrative progresses over the course of the relatively fast-paced and flowing run-time nothing is wasted. Everyone and everything is relevant and once you’re in the flow you’re there for the entire run. Gripped by the precise construction of the story and the characters, the events that unfold and the various twists and turns in the psychology of each figure, especially the actions of police at the centre of the film. There’s no denying that this is a timely film. Calling back to much of the year’s news, and perhaps it’s the realism of each figure – helped by a fine screenplay and fantastic performances that help to capture the stresses, worries, anger and fear of a lot of the characters, even the number of child performers who have a strong impact on the narrative excel, even if they get little to no lines their expressions and body language say everything. All simply placing you further into the authenticity of the world that the cast and crew create. A world that’s unfortunately not too different from our own.

Perhaps it’s because of this, and the fear and panic that the viewer experiences during a number of sequences, that there’s such a strong connection with the film. It’s the way that everything feels so genuine. As already mentioned the film is inspired by the Parisian riots of 2008, Ly captured footage of this as the chaos unfolded and there are feelings of this, the anger and the tensions are emitted throughout. Even during some of the quieter moments of conversation, the context of the film and everything built up already provides a feeling that anything could go wrong. Anyone could lash out or say something that could be easily misconstrued at any time. Or simple someone might just say something intentionally wrong and violent inducing a public brawl. The film is lined with such feelings and for 104 minutes carries you through this blood-pumping, tension-filled piece of reflection. Yet an admirable piece of reflection that never feels drab or bleak or as if it’s lecturing the viewer or talking down to them. A finely crafted non-documentary mirror of character, intrigue, action and tension.

Fantastically directed, with equally brilliant performances Les Misérables perfectly uses characters to progress the narrative and boost the levels of tension that engage the viewer throughout almost the entire run-time.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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