Les Misérables

Les Misérables first published S&S Feb 2013

Review: Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo’s historical novel of revolution and redemption, has proven irresistible to filmmakers. As far back as 1887, the Lumière brothers shot a quick-change artist’s character impersonations in Victor Hugo et les principaux personnages des Misérables, while Albert Cappelani’s Le Chemineau (1906) and Alice Guy-Blaché’s L’Enfant de la Barricade (1907) were early examples of dramatised scenes inspired by the novel. There would follow countless fuller film (and television) adaptations, but in 1985 Hugo’s story would achieve its most popular form in the stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Now in its 28th year, it is the world’s longest-running musical, and has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages.

There is no need to ask why this new big-screen musical version of Les Misérables has come into existence. Recent box-office successes like Chicago (2002), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Mamma Mia! (2008) show there is still money to be made, and even the odd award to be won, in film adaptations of stage musicals – and Les Misérables comes with a massive ready-made audience that not only knows the story but can hum the tunes, even if the stage production’s original composer (Claude-Michel Schönberg) and French and English lyricists (Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer) have collaborated with screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) to rewrite and rearrange some of their old numbers while also adding new material. Perhaps the more pertinent question – why now? – is best answered with reference to our own era of economic iniquities and Occupy movements, bringing renewed relevance to Hugo’s themes of resistance and change.

Yet here popular uprisings are dressed in failure. “There was a time we killed the king,” sings the urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttletone) of the previous century’s French Revolution, “Now we have got another king – he’s no better than the last.” The 1832 June Rebellion depicted in the film fails to inspire the masses and ends in a massacre, while even the 1848 revolution portrayed triumphantly in the dreamy closing sequence would have its achievements reversed within a few years as the Republic again gave way to Empire. Flush with love for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is mocked for his petty preoccupations in a time of national crisis, with his fellow student Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) declaring contemptuously: “You talk of battle, lost and won, and here he comes like Don Juan – it is like an opera”. Of course, full to the brim with sung-through love triangles, deathbed confessions and high melodrama, Les Misérables is just like an opera, and favours the personal over the political, tracing the internal revolution of its ex-con protagonist Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from hate to love (his final line: “to love another person is to see the face of God”).

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) seems from the outset to be exploiting cinema’s unique capacity for grand spectacle, opening with an epic sequence of a chain gang hauling a gigantic ship to shore; but for all this film’s recreation of sometimes vast period sets, Hooper’s trump card is in fact his use of prolonged close-ups, bringing viewers to the performers’ inner torments with a proximity that is more intimate and unflinching than anything achievable on stage. The effect is only enhanced by Hooper’s decision to film his cast singing ‘live’ to camera, without any lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks, so that Anne Hathaway, e.g., is able to deliver “I Dreamed A Dream”, the despairing solo of fallen grisette Fantine, with a raw dramatic intensity rarely seen in musicals, while Jackman and Russell Crowe (as Valjean’s implacable pursuer Inspector Javert) get to exhibit the acting skills for which they are famous alongside their lesser known singing chops.

Still, those not already enamoured of stage musicals are unlikely to be converted by over two and a half hours of mannered song and recitative, wherein emotions are writ large in long lyrical outpourings, rather than in the subtle gestures and prosaic dialogue that tend to define cinematic realism. For these viewers, scenes of characters having their teeth pulled or wading through shit may well seem a reflexive metaphor for the experience of enduring so much alienating stylisation – and while it may come as some relief that the singing is not also accompanied by dancing, one sequence in which Cosette is joined by a fluttering butterfly may prove too kitschily Disney even for the most diehard musical fans.

Synopsis: 1815, Digne. Released after 19 years of hard labour, and inspired by a Bishop’s mercy, Jean Valjean tears up his parole papers, resolving to become a different person.

1823. While Valjean, now a pseudonymous mayor and factory owner in Montreuil-sur-Mer, is distracted by his dogged pursuer Lieutenant Javert, worker Fantine is unfairly dismissed. Desperately turned prostitute, Fantine is about to be arrested by Javert, when Valjean intervenes, promising the dying woman that he will protect her daughter Cosette. Valjean confesses his identity to prevent an innocent man being punished in his place, recovers Cosette from larcenous guardians Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, and flees.

1832, Paris. As his fellow students call for revolution, Marius falls for Cosette. Valjean and Cosette go into hiding from Javert. After the funeral of people’s champion General Lamarche turns violent, the students build a barricade, and take Javert hostage. The Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine, also secretly in love with Marius, dies in his arms. Valjean joins the students to protect Marius, and mercifully releases Javert. As the students are massacred, Valjean carries unconscious Marius into the sewers. After letting Valjean go, Javert kills himself for breach of duty.

Valjean departs so as never to compromise Cosette with his criminal history. On their wedding day, Marius and Cosette learn from the gatecrashing Thénardiers that Valjean is in a convent. There, Valjean gives Cosette a confessional letter, and dies. At the successful 1848 Revolution, the ghosts of Valjean, Fantine and the students triumphantly haunt the barricades.

© Anton Bitel