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About as far from being a rousing stage musical as is possible, Les Misérables’ exhilarating, engrossing portrait of war on the streets between a swaggering Anti-Crime Squad and the myriad gangs they are trying to police shared the Jury Prize at Cannes.
In sharp contrast to the opening scenes of a unified France celebrating its 2018 World Cup win on the Champs-Élysées, the film takes place in a troubled Paris suburb over the course of a tightly-wrought couple of days, recalling Training Day with its portrayal of compromised cops, the crossing of ethical lines and the conscience of a newcomer. But director Ladj Ly’s rendition of the drug- and poverty-stricken banlieues of working-class France is less Hollywood and more naturalistic à la The Wire, with astonishing performances by everyone from his three lead thugs to the indignant crooks, beleaguered immigrant families and children caught in the crossfire.
Ly’s 15-year career in documentary, focusing on sociopolitical issues arising from events such as the 2005 Paris riots, clearly informs his approach to this fictional, but all-too-relevant, tale. Les Misérables is his first dramatic feature, but his realist fingerprints are all over it, notably in a key plot point which remarkably derives from autobiographical experience.
Complex in its morality, lacking judgement of its characters, Les Misérables is a high-energy, contemporary musing on the problems explored by Victor Hugo over 150 years ago. — Sarah Watt
“When the police, through brutality, have lost the trust of their neighbourhood, it doesn’t matter who’s really in charge; violence is inevitable. The curtain between uneasy peace and outright war is gauzy indeed.” — Alissa Wilkinson, Vox
“This… slice of realist French cinema… bursts out with the same vigour, passion and realism as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine.” — Richard Mowe, Eye For Film