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If nothing else, you have to give the makers of Les Misérables credit for boldness. Naming an original French film after the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo is a comparison most artists would run away from. Especially since it now conjures up nightmares of Russell Crowe singing off-key. This Les Misérables is inspired by the novel and musical only in its themes, not its plot. It’s a vivid take on a familiar tale of police corruption, with fresh details and a thrilling immediacy that renders all comparisons moot.
At its best, it’s a work of anthropology, leading viewers through the complexities of a criminal ecosystem in contemporary Paris. American viewers might not be able to vouch for its authenticity, but the film earns its claims to verisimilitude through a committed naturalism. Our guide is Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a cop from the French countryside who has moved to the city to be closer to his ex-wife and son. He is teamed with two members of the Street Crime Unit, led by Chris (Alexis Manenti), a corrupt and hot-headed sergeant quick to abuse his power. Over the course of a day, filmed with a handheld camera that makes it feel like a virtual ride along, Ruiz gets an education in urban policing, while trying to maintain his sense of right and wrong.
Their beat offers him one test after another in an area full of violence, conflict, and class and ethnic tensions. In the film, the children and teenagers of North African immigrants commit petty crimes and suffer abuse from cops and adult criminals alike.
It’s a coiled world that seems always on the verge of unleashing strife. When the plot turns to a confrontation between the police and the children, and a drone, operated by a shy teenager, that captures the whole incident, director and co-writer Ladj Ly expertly manipulates our perspective, teasing us into sympathizing with the characters he wants us to favor at the moment. It has a dizzying effect. There are no heroes here and very few villains. It’s a world drawn in shades of gray, brought to life by a cast of professional and first-time actors, none of whom break the reality of the scene by reaching for actorly moments. As a result, every act of violence feels understandable and every retaliation inevitable.
Despite its successful depiction of this intricate, underseen community, Les Misérables still largely leaves its marginalized characters on the outside looking in. The film only sees them through the eyes of its police officers, who are the least interesting people on screen. The more the story leans into the confrontation between its by-the-book protagonist and his hot-headed superior, the less engaging it becomes. In the back half of the film, however, Les Misérables lets its meekest characters inherit its world, and it transforms from an effective but uninspired cop drama into a song of righteous fury. It’s glorious, but it’s a crime that it takes so long to get there.
Les Misérables begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime.
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