★★★★ - STUFF
- Director Ladj Ly was at home when the events that inspired Les Misérables unfolded.
He already had a series of short documentaries to his name.
Witnessing an act of police brutality inspired him to get his camera out again and put together a sweeping portrait of the largely North African expat and migrant communities who shared the rundown tower blocks and estates that make up the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil. Victor Hugo set scenes from his novel in the area. Hence the name. And a couple of wry running jokes in the film.
Les Misérables expands on the documentary by bringing in new characters, events and outcomes, but the film largely retains the authenticity and the site-specific feel of the first film. These people are real, the community they live in is an alive and many-layered thing. Old enmities and relationships run deep. Very little of this has to be spoken, or made explicit.
But to see Les Misérables is to spend a couple of hours living within the places it is set.
With the relationship between the community and the local police force fraught and distrustful at best, when a truly bizarre theft brings tensions between the tower residents and a nearby Roma community to a flashpoint. The police’s attempt to intervene is botched and heavy-handed. Everything, as they like to say on the movie posters, is set to explode.
At times Les Misérables reminded me of Training Day. And, a couple of scenes seemed to me to be inspired by incidents in season three of The Wire, which would be no bad thing.
In France, Ladj Ly and Les Misérables are being compared to Mathieu Kassovitz and his 1995 debut La Haine. I can see why the comparison is being made. But, of the two, I prefer Les Misérables.
There is an insight, compassion and generosity of spirit here that most films saddled with the “gritty, urban thriller” tag never even aspire to. That Ly is capable of this maturity and confidence on debut is astonishing.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Les Misérables is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba