30th November 2020 (UK Blu-Ray Release)
Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots, and Ladj Ly’s short film of the same name, Les Misérables is a hugely topical provocative insight into the tensions between neighbourhood residents and police.
Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga
Don’t worry: this is not another adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel. There’s no singing Russell Crowe in sight. Instead it is a story set in the modern day in the same neighbourhood in which Hugo wrote his novel. It is a neighbourhood that is suffering greatly with poverty and crime. An Anti-Crime police unit cruises around the area, acting less as protectors and more like sheriffs and antagonisers. This is the unit that Damien Bonnard’s protagonist Ruiz has been transferred to. A routine first day on the job soon transforms into something much more dangerous and complicated when the police and the local community clash and a drone hovers ominously overhead filming the action.
Stories about the issue of police brutality are not in short supply, but Ladj Ly’s movie does just about manage to stand out amongst the rest, mainly due to Ly’s creative imagination and an explosive finale. The use of drones has been overdone in recent years, but Ly finds an inventive way to incorporate this into the film.
The film also opens with footage shot during France’s football World Cup win in 2018, another clever move from the director. It allows the audience to compare and contrast the fleeting national joy of Paris with the crushing poverty still rife in the city. It also allows the film to open with the stunning image of an army of French marching on the Arc de Triomphe, not only iconic imagery but painfully appropriate for the film to follow.
Although it is adapted from a short of the same name, it never feels like a movie that has been stretched out of shape to make it into a feature. Ly clearly knew the areas to develop from the short and has crafted a competent debut feature.
Les Misérables isn’t a complete success though. It is true that it never lags but for long swaths it never really compels either. It builds slowly but surely to the finale, but never truly grasps the audience’s attention fully until those explosive final scenes.
There are some question marks over the casting too. Bonnard has proven himself a wonderful actor in the past but as Ruiz he is good but rarely great. For large portions of the film he expresses very little, and it’s difficult to really get any reading on the character. His is clearly the character we are supposed to connect with as an audience as his moral compass is not as skewed as say his unit commander Chris (Alexis Manenti). However, he does little to create this connection, coming across as wooden rather than simply quiet. It is only in the film few scenes as the action ramps up that Bonnard’s character begins to develop and emote. Manenti as the heavy-handed leader of the unit is a better match though, and Djibril Zonga as the conflicted man stuck between Manenti and Ruiz morally is the standout.
Les Misérables – released on DVD and digital on 30th November.