Movie Review: “Les Misérables” (2019)

An alternate version of Ladj Ly’s new film, “Les Misérables,” would end without the final 20 minutes. It would be a powerful and sad film, one which gets its point across and makes the viewer contemplate. With those last 20 minutes included, however, it is something different. “Les Misérables” doesn’t merely make its point with it finale, it pushes that point right up to and past the edge. It goes from being a movie which makes the viewer contemplate to one which makes the viewer truly struggle with what they have witnessed. It goes from being good to being great.

Whatever allusions to or hints of or mirrorings with the Victor Hugo novel, this is not that story. This is the story of three cops trying to keep the peace amongst various groups of citizens in one corner of Paris and not doing a terribly great job of it. It doesn’t help that one cop is crooked, one (at best) turns a blind eye to that corruption, and one is a new transfer who doesn’t have his legs under him yet.

The transfer and main character is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). He doesn’t like these other two men—the crooked squad leader, Chris (Alexis Manenti), and Gwada (Djebril Zonga)—but it being his first day on the job is reluctant to push too hard. It’s a mistake and one for which the whole community pays.

The various factions in the district do listen to these three cops, the folks on whom the movie spends the most time, but the people do not respect them and, when given the opportunity, they fight back. It is scary and heartbreaking and completely understandable. It is depiction of how when authority is abused, it is also weakened. It is a stark reminder that it is the people who give power and it is the people who can take it away.

Stéphane is the classic fish-out-of-water character and the movie uses him as an excuse to introduce us to all the players in the community. The tactic may be tried-and-true, but the representations are realistic and the story very quickly takes on a life of its own. While we may never do it, we understand exactly how one of the kids, Issa (Issa Perica) has a dumb prank—stealing a lion cub from a gang-run circus—go too far. It gets the whole community involved and how the crime squad’s previous dealings with the kids and everyone else makes it impossible for them to appropriately diffuse the situation. We all know what is going to happen, but, like Stéphane, we are powerless to stop it.

Ly puts the audience right there with the various groups in the community, building the story slowly and deliberately. We see how the interactions of the kids with the Muslim Brotherhood and “the Mayor” (the head of one gang) and the various other entities with each other.

This is the greatest success of the film – this world created by Ly. It is vibrant and believable. The script, which is from Ly, Manenti, and Giordano Gederlini, may offer up an offer the top finale, but its one to which the film logically and consistently builds and it keeps us there with the characters in that world.

Undoubtedly a movie with a message, “Les Misérables” puts the audience squarely into the middle of an entirely different uprising. It shows how the police mishandle the situation, causing trouble rather than ending it, and how eventually a community has had enough and decide to do something about it. It is a complaint about the world in which we live, describing us all as too divided, too separate. It is a reminder of our duty to one another and a warning about what happens when we don’t live up to our obligations. It is a sledgehammer, showing us what happens in the world when those we trust to do the right thing, to help us all, to adjudicate what is right and fair, do not live up to their end of the bargain.

four and a half stars

photo credit:  Amazon Studios

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