One can never foretell just when the drama and turbulence of real-life will come to closely resemble the fiction of a newly released feature film. As a story of race relations, of class division, of violence breeding violence, of police losing the people’s trust and respect, it could not possibly feel more topical right now.
It takes a great deal of confidence for a French film-maker – in their debut feature, no less – to appropriate as iconic a title as Les Misérables for a modern-day crime drama that has no direct connection to the story and characters immortalised by Victor Hugo. What the two stories do share is a geographical setting and a concern for matters of social importance.
This new movie’s basic premise – idealistic cop journeys from innocence to experience when placed with a new and challenging unit, on a day in which emotions threaten to explode as police frantically deal with the fallout from an altercation that had an unexpected ending – may sound broadly familiar. On the other hand, as long as stories like these continue to resonate, strongly and painfully, with real-world associations, then there continues to be a place for them in cinema.
Director/co-writer Ladj Ly apparently, in his younger days, had first-hand experience in the type of events that he stages so powerfully and realistically on the screen in this film. The editing rhythms allow us to spend enough time getting to know the neighbourhood being depicted and the people within it, before the tempo races along like an out-of-control blaze when the drama demands. Camera-work conveys the feeling of a documentary without the need to shake and zoom excessively.
An intelligent, compassionate, multi-faceted screenplay allows us to understand events from multiple points-of-view; no one character, or one side, is totally blameless. Performances – particularly Damien Bonnard as the steadfastly well-meaning new arrival to the streets of Montfemeil, and young Issa Percia as the youngster with a tragically wounded visage – possess both the power of archetypes and the credibility of individuals.
Les Misérables provides a valuable, insightful, and haunting portrait of a community in crisis. While offering no easy answers, it still leaves its viewers with the possibility of hope for the future.
Les Miserables opens on Thursday.
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