Les Miserables is a musical directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) entirely performed vocally, based on the 1985 Broadway stage play situated against the chaos which ensued after the return of the Bourbon Monarchs to power in France and the Rebellion of 1832 where many of the populace were slaughtered in their attempt to bring back the Republic. This film focuses on the hero, Jean Valjean’s attempt to rebuild his life and restore the 19 years that were lost to him when he was imprisoned under brutal conditions for stealing a loaf of bread vs. a fanatic law abiding Inspector Javert who rabidly hunts him for over 20 years after Jean Valjean breaks parole.
The film juxtaposes rehabilitation and the path to humanity via the power of love, kindness and merciful acts, with the equally obsessive adherence to the letter of the law that clearly should not be confused with justice and righteousness.
I loved the book Les Miserables published in 1862 by Victor Hugo which was filled with revolutionary fervor, great compassion for the “wretched” of Paris and pages dedicated to architectural detail about the construction of the Paris Sewer System – a place where the final confrontation between the past and present of Valjean and Inspector Javert climax in the book and film.
Upton Sinclair wrote about this great novel: “…So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless…”
I found the film version to be disappointing both emotionally and visually. The production felt like a transposed stage set. Even though the movie runs for close to 2 1/2 hours, I had very little sense of the characters – perhaps it was the format– totally sung with no dialogue that seemed to take precedent. Hugh Jackman gave a fine depiction of Jean Valjean, though I felt he seemed to be too slight in build to be able to enact the feats of physical as well as inner strength, that are the essence of this character, that physicality plays an important part in moving the plot forward. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) – the “fallen woman”, the victim of abandonment, and harsh treatment by her fellow workers, jealous of her beauty and innocence, do not evince any empathy to a single mother whose aim in life is to be able to support her daughter Cosette – worker solidarity be damned. After her death, Jean Valjean brings up Fantine’s child, removing her from the heinous servile situation she was placed in under the care of Innkeepers performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and as his wife Helena Bonham Carter, both providing unnecessary comic relief. I found them to be the most distracting burlesque elements of the film – popping up everywhere and grotesquely transparent. On the other hand, I did not mind Russell Crowe or his non-professional voice as Inspector Javert and found that when he was on the screen he radiated the presence that the others lacked. His character was also quite interesting - his strict adherence to brutal principles, no matter how corrupted they were by a system which relegated the poor – the “miserables” to oblivion and deplorable dissolution.
This modest movie relates a saga told over many years, from the time we meet Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as a child and later as a lovely, elegant woman who catches the eye of Eddie Redmayne’s Marius who is one of the young idealistic revolutionaries building the barricades in an effort to overthrow the existing political system. Their wildly fairy-tale relationship ties together an account of romantic and familial love, heroism, and political upheaval bringing the cycle of redemption and ambush full circle to a melodramatic conclusion.