Not to be confused with that time Russell Crowe lied on his resumé about being able to sing, Les Misérables is a French drama based on a real-life case of police brutality witnessed by the director, Ladj Ly.
Set in the same Parisienne suburb as Victor Hugo’s novel, this 2019 Oscar nominee follows a rookie cop’s (Damien Bonnard) first day on patrol with an abusive squad leader (Alexis Manenti) and his tacit accomplice (Djebril Zonga). Against the backdrop of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a national moment of multicultural fraternité is short-lived, giving way to familiar scenes of institutionalised violence as witnessed around the world on a daily basis. Ly’s vérité style has the effect of being dropped into an average day in the life of this and many other communities.
The director employs arial drone shots before cutting to up-close-and-personal camerawork to suggest systemic abuse on both the macro and micro level, making the picture as timely as it is intense. From its optimistic opening to the incendiary ending, the hair-trigger tension is often hard-to-watch, as one would expect from the systematic destruction of community by law enforcement. It examines the powder-keg circumstances behind police brutality without making excuses, and though some creative licence is taken, the result is still a much more interesting Black Lives Matter-era movie than recent Hollywood misfire Queen & Slim.
Urgent, devastating and so well acted it hurts, Les Misérables eschews cliché and easy narrative options in favour of bold and provocative character choices. With some notable exceptions (including Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit) the Americans wouldn’t make a film like this, but if anyone needs it, it’s them.