Les Misérables (MA) - 104 minutes
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has just moved to the city and joined a tough unit – the local anti-crime squad, patrolling the underclass in the impoverished Paris suburbs of Montfermeil*, many of whom live in crowded high-rise apartments.
His immediate superior, Chris (Alexis Manenti), is a piece of work and starts by giving Stéphane a disrespectful nickname.
From there, it becomes clear Chris enjoys throwing his weight around.
To say Stéphane’s first day on the job is an eye-opener is one heck of an understatement.
You have several distinct groups who each have their own way of doing things.
Firstly, there is a power-hungry character known as The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and his underlings, an influential Imam, Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a former thug reborn and his supporters, not to forget the gypsies who have no love for The Mayor and his boys.
There is also a shady group in cahoots with the nasty cop and, arguably, the most important cohort of the lot – the teens and youngsters, known as The Bugs, who roam the streets making them their own.
Among them is Issa (Issa Perica), who is constantly testing his father’s patience by getting into trouble.
Keeping his distance is a shy kid, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who has a drone from which he peers into and records the activity in other high-rise units, Peeping Tom style.
The story escalates when the gypsies – who operate an animal circus – accuse The Mayor’s boys of stealing something most valuable to them.
The cops intervene to ensure bloodshed is narrowly averted.
But to think that is even close to the end of the matter is to misread the situation, which quickly escalates out of control.
With that, the cops will be front and centre and their behaviour hardly serves to distinguish them.
Les Misérables is a film of gritty realism.
As that would suggest, what we see is hardly pretty – in fact, far from it.
Shady characters and corruption are rife. So is yearning for a better life.
Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots, this is the work of first-time feature film co-writer and director Ladj Ly, who maintains everything is based upon reality.
It takes a considerable time for the action to heat up – the best part of half the movie.
Mind you, when it does, it explodes and just where it will end up remains an unknown.
In truth, the conclusion is incendiary and that second half has you on the edge of your seat.
Manenti is suitably repulsive as the lead cop.
Stéphane, in turn, is appropriately frustrated as the squad newbie who – despite the best of intent – can’t quite believe what he has walked into.
I also appreciated the calm demeanour and stony face – in the face of provocation – of the Imam.
The two key youngsters were compelling in their respective roles, one a cocky live wire who turns through happenstance and the other a bookish nerd.
I was shocked by what went down and that element of surprise is the film’s greatest asset, as the first act dragged.
In summary then, if slice of life drama is what you are after, Les Misérables ends up delivering.
Rated MA, it scores a 7½ out of 10.
* Montfermeil is where Victor Hugo set part of his classic novel Les Misérables.