dir: Tom Hooper
This might shock you, or anyone else, but I thought Les Misèrables was glorious.
What, I’m not allowed to like a musical? You, of all people, are going to cast aspersions on my sexuality?
Fah, well, obviously I’m not totally comfortable with going out on a limb and praising a hellishly successful film based on a hellishly successful West End/Broadway musical based on a book no-one finishes reading, but I’m a rebel like that. It’s just my way.
I’ve never seen nor heard anything from the musical my entire adult life. If I did (which is probably the case; it’s been impossible to ignore at certain times), then it slid off my brain like lube off a duck’s back, being a topic I never had interest in. 1980s musicals all come down to a horrible agglomeration of Cats / Evita / Starlight Express / Phantom of the Opera, none of which ever sparked any aspect of my curiousity, and I probably know more about rugby than I know about those kinds of icky musicals.
So I come to this story and to these songs very much a virgin, probably much alike the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway), naïve and hopeful, when she first met the man who would go on to ruin her life by despoiling her virtue with his honeyed lies, only to abandon her when autumn came. The difference for me is that while this film seduced me wantonly, I am left alive and grateful at its end, and not toothless, tubercular and utterly destroyed, though it almost feels like that after all the goddamn crying.
This film, this production, doesn’t try to do any more with the initial Victor Hugo story than it needs to, since it isn’t an adaptation of the novel, but of the musical from the 1980s. So there is an inbuilt audience for this movie that has greeted it the way meth addicts greet a visit from the meth dealer fairy: open arms, open legs, and open mouths (not filled, alas, with ground-down teeth).
Such an audience has its opposite. That’s how the universe is structured; matter/anti-matter, positive/negative, Spice Girls / The Spazzies. And goddamn, does that opposite group hate it. Far more people are calling this the worst thing they’ve ever endured, from root canals to colonoscopies, and, of course, they’re entitled to their worthless opinions, as are we all. Part of it I think is that it’s a musical, and the mass audience for musicals isn’t there like it was in, I dunno, the 1940s.
And operas and Gilbert and Sullivan follies aren’t exactly on the lips and Twitter streams of most people these days. Even more than that, I think there’s a kind of snobbery at play as well. It’s the very popularity of the musical in the 1980s and 1990s that (some) people remember and look down on, as if such a musical is somehow a ‘lower’ form of entertainment.
Oh, those unwashed, easily entertained masses, what with their bread and circuses and Ed Hardy clothing; they’re just so vulgar, aren’t they?
Truth be told, this is pretty much the attitude I had towards this whole ‘event’ before I watched the flick. I was expecting something of sub-Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber quality simply because of the multitude of simpering middle-aged women who’ve gushingly informed me that watching a production of Les Miz was the highpoint of their otherwise cat-filled lives. The ubiquity of it kind of made me loathe it without actually being ubiquitous enough for me to know anything about it, know any of the songs or recognise any of the music.
So. When I finally got to watch it, I felt like I was being expertly punched in the face, heart and groin by an epic, overblown, passionate, histrionic production that never paused, never relented in its depiction of a profoundly bleak and unfair world in which the only possible salvation comes from moments of grace, mere moments of kindness.
After all, it’s called Les Misèrables. My French isn’t that great, but I think that translates to The Miserables, but I’m not completely sure. Maybe I should look it up.
I would hazard to say, upon having suffered for and survived this experience, that the main character of this story, being Jean Valjean, is probably one of the greatest characters to come out of French literature, right up there with the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons, the Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo, Cyrano de Bergerac and those guys in stripy shirts with berets and onions around their necks on bicycles (baguettes in baskets, of course). And Gerard Depardieu, who seems like he’s fictional, is now a Russian anyway, so he no longer counts.
But Valjean, Mon Dieu! The injustices he suffers through, the misery that he has endured even before the story has started, as these convict labour slaves heave ho at a three decked ship of the line, dragging it into dry dock, as our hero, ably played by Hugh Jackman, hungers for freedom.
His sentence served, nineteen years of hard labour, initially for stealing a loaf of bread, you’d think he’d be able to go on his merry way. Not so, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) vows. As a dangerous prisoner, Valjean will be on parole for the rest of his natural life, being sent hither and yon across France to keep him mobile and impoverished.
And how does Javert affirm that this will be Valjean’s ongoing fate? Through song, of course, since everything, almost every single word throughout this nearly three hour film is sung. Yeah, it’s a musical, but even more musical than the other musicals you can think of. Almost nothing is spoken, and why would it be, when you’ve presumably got a whole bunch of people there begging, aching, yearning to be sung to?
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean as a very physically strong man who is broken right from the start. That ‘brokenness’ never has a chance to heal, because for the entire length of the story, he never really seems to get much respite, much of a feeling of sanctuary. But he does make a profoundly important choice after an encounter with a kindly bishop, who shows him unwarranted kindness. Valjean decides two things: that he will adopt a new identity in order to flee from the stigma that still hounds the name ‘Jean Valjean’, and that he will build a life for himself not predicated upon hate or revenge upon a world that has so ill-treated him thus far.
But for Javert? Let’s just say the character of Javert would not have been out of place on Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in pursuit of the white whale, because they would have shared a compatible monomania. He is profoundly single-minded in his determination to rigidly apply the law in a manner that would make Judge Dredd tremble with fear.
And the focus of that rigid, unvarying, unwavering enforcement of the law is, naturally, Valjean, whom he dedicates his life to bringing to justice.
They, along with everyone else, sing their way through a strange period of French history, after Napoleon was brought down, way after the revolution, and also after the Bourbon Restoration. How much the political machinations and realities play a part is debatable, because the point for most of the characters in the flick is that life for the poor, downtrodden miserables is pretty shit. This misery results in some turning on the people next to them, the ones they should be the most merciful to, or, in Valjean’s case, trying to help as many people as he can.
So much nobility can only go so far. A woman who’s already been hard done by, who happens to work at a factory Valjean owns after reinventing himself, ends up being chewed up and spat out not by a system, but by the callousness of men, who’ve ruined her life and keep finding new ways to annihilate her.
So much misery besets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), but we can tell ourselves that it was almost worth it for what it summons from her, being the famed song I Dreamed a Dream, which she sings herself, in one shot, in the one scene. All her rage, all her sorrow is summoned and focussed, and expelled through the screen in a scene that hit me like a bus. She sings it as if she’s using up the last of her life in one shining, gloriously miserable moment, and that’s exactly what she does.
I don’t know if Anne Hathaway deserves the Academy Award just for that scene compared to any of the other nominees (let’s be honest, these disparate kinds of performances are incomparable, but we try anyway, comparing unicorns to aurora borealises), but it has to be one of the most incredible scenes of any film released in 2012.
The miseries for the miserables don’t end there. You see, all the indignities and degradations and horrors heaped upon Fantine were for good purpose in the divine scheme of things, because they lead to Valjean vowing to look after Fantine’s daughter Cosette, who, naturally, is being looked after by the nastiest, most venal scumbags in all of Paris.
Oh, Cosette, famous for being the girl on all the posters for Les Mis. She sweeps the floor and sings of a castle on a cloud, where there is only love and no crying, moments before being ill-used and tormented by the Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), innkeepers and crooks par excellence. These crims without compare torment Valjean throughout the story at different times, playing villains more nasty and grasping, as a counterpoint to Javert’s dogged pursuit.
Of course Valjean is never going to catch a break from the cosmic forces aligned against him, but he’s still going to do his darndest to look after his adoptive daughter Cosette (as an adult played by Amanda Seyfried).
The last hour or so of the story covers the June Rebellion – Paris Uprising, where a pack of students led by Enjorlas (Aaron Tveit) think that if they sing some rousing songs, wear some very nice pants, and wave some flags around, the people of Paris will rise up and help them overthrow the monarchy that had oozed back into power.
Thing is, they’re very handsome men, they’ve got some catchy songs, and those pants are pretty snug. So snug, in fact, that when an all growed up Cosette spies one of the rebels, being Marius (Eddie Redmayne) she and he fall instantly in love without exchanging a word. This is the way of young love, naturally, and the way of musicals.
With the backdrop of the fiery battle to come, of course Valjean and Javert must tussle again and again, each must question what they are committed to and how far they will go to protect it, and Valjean again has to sacrifice himself for everyone, again and again, being the kind of hero so noble they make the rest of us feel like scum.
Is it over the top, excessive, epic, pretentious, populist, vulgar, exquisite and gargantuan in its aspirations and its attempts at awesomeness? Of course, it’s probably all of those things, but that’s why I loved it. Since watching it I’ve become completely obsessed with it and can’t think of anything else other than the story and the songs. Admittedly, some of the songs or sequences are better than the others, and there are some that could have been excised completely without my shedding a tear, but, on the most part, I thought the singing was great and I loved the music. Who cares if the plot didn't make any sense, or if there was no earthly reason for Valjean to do over half the stuff he did.
Jackman manages to bring a broken quality to his singing which perfectly suits the character. Recording the singing live (I’m sure they did a lot of work with ADR in post production, but so what) was a stroke of absolute genius. I don’t imagine it made the shoot any easier, but it really added, it fundamentally added to the immersion factor, which, let’s face it, is very difficult when everyone’s singing constantly.
A lot of critics have been pretty hard on Russell Crowe, and I think they’re being pretty unfair. None of these actors have perfectly operatic voices, but Crowe, I thought, did a plenty decent job with his character and with his signature bits, especially Stars and Javert’s last stroll along the river Seine, which made you feel the cognitive dissonance which dooms the character even more than his rigidness. You hired a thug to play a rigid, unwavering thug; be grateful and thankful, not unfair. And another thing, Sacha Baron Cohen making fun of Russell Crowe's singing at the Golden Globes was like a warthog making fun of a zebra for looking funny.
Australia’s own Hugh does decent work throughout, really embodying the character, but standing out with his soliloquy (before changing his name), with Suddenly and certainly Bring Him Home, which makes me tear up just thinking about it.
The other song performances and sequences that slayed me too: One Day More (killed me, gone), Red and Black, Drink With Me, the one about being able to Hear the People Sing? which made me want to stand up and storm the Bastille myself, and Eddie Redmayne’s moment to shine, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. His tears singing it matched mine hearing it.
It’s a very different kind of entertainment for me, and it’s almost impossible for me to be entirely rational about it, but I think it’s just about the most perfect version of ‘it’ that they could have made. I respect almost every choice Tom Hooper made as a director working with what was quite cheesy material. Although, I do have to say that plenty of shots were terribly distracting when the camera got so close to some people’s faces that I could see the waves and contours of their nose hairs. Some of the angles seemed deliberately offputting and pointlessly odd, but not too often. It looked amazing, felt amazing, glowed with wonderfulness (I know I sound stoned, but I assure you, I never touch the stuff).
This flick doesn’t work on the rational level, it’s not aimed at an intellectual approach; it’s purely emotional, purely illogical, and, for me, pure enjoyment, I was utterly exhausted at the end of it, but happy, which makes for a pleasant change.
I loved it, and it looks like and is a glorious film. What, were using expecting deep cynicism and caustic insults at this late stage of the game? Sorry to disappoint. My inner Christopher Hitchens was silent for almost the entire duration of this epic film, and so a good time was had by all.
9 times it’s about time I admitted that my real name is Richey ‘Manic’ Edwards out of 10
“Drink with me, to days gone by, to the life that used to be.” – it’s as good a reason as any other – Les Misèrables