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Posts Tagged ‘Les Miserables’

A boy (Issa Percia) wrapped in the French tricolor flag emerges from an apartment block in present-day Paris. There is a sense of great anticipation in the air as he joins his friends and they excitedly discuss the prospects for the football match they are eagerly anticipating – France is in the world cup final! They travel to the centre of the city and join with huge crowds also following the game and enjoying the occasion. (As ever at these moments, you can’t help but envy the French their national anthem: the UK’s is such an antediluvian dirge.) No spoilers, but France win and the celebrations are unrestrained and wholly joyful, flags and banners waving. It is therefore unsettling and ironic as the title card for Les Miserables, directed by Ladj Ly, appears over these images.

Soon we find ourselves in the company of Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a policeman newly transferred to Paris from the provinces. Ruiz has been assigned to the Street Crime Unit, a special group concerned with monitoring activity in the underprivileged district of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote and partly set his famous novel, many years ago). He gets a stern lecture from a senior officer about the importance of teamwork and backing up his immediate superior, Chris (Alexis Mamenti) – also known as Pink Pig – before hitting the streets with him and another colleague, Gwada (Djebril Zonga).

It soon becomes apparent that their patch is a tinder-box just waiting for the spark that will cause a major explosion: the mostly immigrant population are living in poverty, and there are constant tensions between the different ethnic crime gangs and the Muslim brotherhood, who also maintain a significant presence in the area (the film makes it clear without labouring the issue that the cops are more comfortable dealing with the crooks than the brotherhood). Ruiz has clearly not received a plum assignment.

Things get even more awkward: there is an abrasive edge to Ruiz’s relationship with Pink Pig practically from the moment they meet – partly due to Pink Pig bestowing the unwelcome nickname ‘Greaser’ on his new colleague – and this only becomes more pronounced when Ruiz is forced to back his colleague up when he attempts to illegally search a group of teenage girls. One of them attempts to film him as he does so: Pink Pig smashes her phone. He makes his position clear to Ruiz: when it comes to his interactions with the inhabitants of his patch, he is never wrong, and never sorry.

Already the film is immensely resonant with issues that have exercised the world this year, about the intersection of race, social opportunity and police power, and this continues as the plot develops. The team are called in to deal with a petty theft that threatens to flare up into a major clash between two of the local gangs. Whatever else they are, Pink Pig and his team are competent cops and locate the guilty party – the boy from the start of the film. But they find themselves under attack by a gang of children, nerves are stretched too far, and an innocent is badly injured. Rather than helping the wounded party, it’s clear that Pink Pig’s priority is covering up the whole incident. Is Ruiz going to support his superior or do his job?

We still seem to be at a point where the big distributors are being very wary about releasing big films into the multiplexes – at the moment the only major ‘new’ films are Tenet and The New Mutants, with the rest of the screens just showing kids’ movies and the odd oldie, though I note that the third Bill and Ted film is due to come out in the next week or so. If nothing else, one might hope this would create an opening for a film like Les Miserables, which might usually struggle to find an audience. (Although one must accept the possibility that all films are struggling to find an audience at the moment.) This is, regrettably, mainly because it is subtitled, although the general tone and subject matter are also likely to put some people off.

By this I mean that Les Miserables, while functioning superbly as a gripping thriller – something like a Francophone version of Training Day – is also clearly motivated by other concerns than the desire to entertain. If it had been made by certain American studios we’d probably discussing it as what they call ‘social entertainment’ – underpinning a solid narrative is the desire to engage with serious issues.

Initially it seems like this is going to primarily be a film about the abuse of police powers, framed as a conflict between Chris and Ruiz. Both actors give terrific performances, especially Mamenti (who also co-wrote the film) – Pink Pig initially seems like a joker with a slightly nasty edge to him, before he is revealed to be a dangerously arrogant and self-interested loose cannon. But the film is not totally simplistic – we see glimpses of a more rounded character, a capable police officer and family man. It’s suggested the job itself has worn these men down and brutalised them. Bonnard, for his part, puts across his character’s awkwardness and increasing concern extremely well, building up to the inevitable confrontations with his colleagues.

However, as the story develops it becomes clear that there is a wider issue being explored here: the extent to which the young people of Montfermeil have been failed and abandoned by adult authority figures. They are at best ignored by the authorities, allowed to slip through the cracks – at worst, they are exploited and treated as a resource by criminals and the police. Only the Muslim brotherhood genuinely appear to have their best interests at heart (which obviously opens up a whole new can of worms about the nature of multi-culturalism in western society). The climax, when it comes, is explicitly framed as a clash between youth in revolt and the men who have failed them, ending on a finely-achieved moment of ambiguity: a horrendously tense moment is left unresolved, as a quote from Hugo suggests that men are not born bad, but raised badly. It’s an entirely persuasive and affecting conclusion to a film which often feels like an roar of anger, but one which never loses focus or control. This is an excellent piece of cinema.

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…but, oh, reader, it did not end there. Regular partakers of this nonsense may recall that occasionally I like to spice things up by changing the format of the review – doing part of it as a list, or a piece of short fiction, or something else which feels appropriate (for example). And part of me thought that the most apposite way of commenting on Tom Hooper’s inescapable Les Miserables would be to write a song about it in suitably sweeping style. But I’ve got a lot of other work on at the moment, and I couldn’t be bothered. It wouldn’t sound the same without the full orchestral backing, anyway.

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Speaking of which, listening to the BBC’s flagship film programme, I caught a snippet of Hooper’s film from which the music had been snipped, giving the impression that the actors were singing a cappella. The results were, shall we say, rather amusing in the case of Russell Crowe, not someone for whom a career in musical theatre likely beckons. And so I turned up for the movie well prepared to chuckle and jeer my way through it.

Didn’t quite work out that way, though. Based on the stage show, which is based on a novel by Victor Hugo, we open on a gang of convicts working as slave labour in 1815 France. Most prominent is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose surname rhymes with his prison number (good news for the lyricist), who almost straight away is given his parole by merciless cop Javert (Crowe). Valjean has to carry around a document revealing his criminal past or end up straight back in the clink, which makes his life almost intolerable.

However, an act of kindness from a stranger forces Valjean to reconsider his philosophy, and he sets out to become a better person, breaking his parole in the process and revealing that, in addition to possessing tremendous physical strength and a fine tenor voice, he is incapable of facing a moral dilemma without singing about it at great length.

Anyway, some years later the reinvented Valjean is now a prosperous philanthropist – but unfortunately his path crosses that of Javert once more. The policeman vaguely remembers him from somewhere, and soon events conspire to force Valjean to reveal his true identity and go on the run once more: this time in the company of little orphan girl Cosette, whom (for various reasons too lengthy to recount here) he has taken into his protection.

This is a long film with a lot of plot. Suffice to say that later on there is a lot of flag-waving, shooting, crawling through excrement, redemption, unrequited love, and exasperating cor-blimey-guv’nor Cockney accents before everything is resolved. (I’m still not sure what the chorus of hopeful spectres in the final shot are on about. Are they starting a revolution against God, or something? Good luck with that, guys.)

So like I say, I turned up to laugh at the extraordinary hats and hairpieces which pepper the movie, with my usual air of detached indulgence. But then we got to the scene where the kindly old priest (Colm Wilkinson) whom Valjean has tried to rob makes him a gift of everything he’s stolen, plus adds a bit more, saying Valjean clearly needs it more than him, and exhorts him to be a better a person… and as a gut-punch of sheer sincere human decency it really takes some beating. Oh! It’s so sweet! Cripes.

And then we had the scene where the innocent single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), reduced through no fault of her own to the deepest depths of debasement and despair – we get to see her degradation in some detail – sings a plaintive song about how life hasn’t quite worked out how she had hoped… and maybe it’s the context, or the song, or the way Hathaway puts it over… but suddenly I was losing it and welling up despite myself. I am ashamed to admit it but I was properly weeping in the cinema. (I haven’t cried so much since River Song died.) There is some weird power in certain sections of this film that enables it to circumvent your rational brain and interfere directly with your emotions.

Despite this remarkable faculty, there’s a lot about Les Mis that I was not particularly struck by. The plot eventually moves on to focus on a bunch of younger characters, mainly lovestruck young girls and floppy-haired student revolutionaries, all of whom were either wet or annoying or both (there’s a Cockney urchin living in 1832 Paris whom I would cheerfully have shot even before the revolution started). Amanda Seyfried, playing the female lead, sings with a curiously quavering voice, producing a vibrato effect I found very irksome. Much better, I thought, was Samantha Barks – if big musicals were still a major film genre, this girl would be a global superstar on the strength of her performance here.

I found the plot at this stage less involving and much missed the older characters. I’ve been rude about Hugh Jackman’s acting in the past but this is a part which really fits him like a glove, in terms of his persona, his range, and his singing ability. I even thought Russell Crowe brought a lot to the movie in terms of sheer presence and personality, although hitting some of the notes appears to be causing him significant discomfort. Let’s put this in perspective, though – if we’re talking about unsuitable A-list stars mooing their way through a musical, our yardstick has got to be Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, and Crowe’s nowhere near that bad.

But it does seem to go on for a terribly long time, and there’s only so much that comedy scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter can do to perk it up a bit. Why is practically the entire thing sung, anyway? It just feels like a stab at opera. I suppose you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. The big songs are all great, though, even if towards the end it gets a bit repetitive: it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is this film is capable of dying without literally making a big production number out of it.

There’s the funny thing, though. I was sitting there towards the end, stirring a bit restlessly in my seat, wondering how long the damn thing had left to go, as the character in the scene was making a hell of a meal of passing away. ‘This movie is so overblown and sentimental in places, and much too long,’ I found myself thinking, even while realising at that very moment that I had gone again. The sneaky film had bypassed my rational mind once more.

All praise to Tom Hooper for that, and for the sheer look, scale, and technical achievement of the thing, for all of them are deeply impressive (why on Earth hasn’t he been Oscar nominated?). Despite all that, and the intensely powerful moments I’ve already mentioned, I still think this is a flawed movie in some ways. A monumental piece of work that will be remembered for a long time, but still – for me – easier to admire than to genuinely like.

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