LES MISÉRABLES
 

Dir. Tom Hooper. U.K. 2012.

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Based on the 1862 French novel by Victor Hugo and the musical of the same name, Tom Hooper's Les Misérables is a moving experience that, despite its flaws, reaches the heart in a big way with its depiction of the wretched conditions of the poor and its theme of forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption. The film is notable for towering performances by Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, and others plus great songs written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. There is no spoken dialogue and everyone in the film sings. Some do it effectively, others not so much, but the fact that the songs are performed live rather than pre-recorded, expands the emotional content, enhancing rather than detracting from the overall impact of the music. As well, repeated close-ups create a feeling of intimacy with the singers that can be missing on stage

 
The time period of Les Misérables spans 10-40 years after the end of the French Revolution. Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, a convict, imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and repeated efforts to escape. As the film opens, Valjean is paroled but policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), a staunch defender of the status quo, vows to follow him and hunt him down. Impoverished and hungry, Valjean takes refuge in a church where he is welcomed by the Bishop of Digne (Colin Wilkerson) and given food and a place to stay.

In the scene that follows, the film first establishes one of its main themes, that of forgiveness. Valjean, doing what he has always done, steals silver from the church but is caught by the police and returned to the church.

 
In a key moment of the film, instead of being punished, the bishop pretends that the silver was given freely to Valjean and even gives him some candles that he allegedly forgot. This act of kindness will stay with Valjean and transform his life. Eight years later, Valjean, still being pursued by Javert, has changed his name to Monsieur Madeleine and has carved out a new life for himself as a respected mayor and factory owner in the small town of Vigau. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an employee in his factory is harassed by fellow workers and fired by her manager when he finds out that she has given birth to a child out of wedlock.
 

The little girl, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), is looked after by unsavory innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who provide some comic relief, though their presence can seem extraneous and jarring. To stay alive and care for her child Fantine must sell her hair and teeth and turn to prostitution, a demonstration, according to Hooper, of the ideal of sacrifice. Fantine is willing to lose everything, her body, her life, to try to save her child. In one of the film's highlights, Hathaway's magnificent performance of the song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is delivered with searing emotion as she sings about how life has killed her dreams.

 
Valjean visits Fantine on her death bed and promises to rescue Cosette from the Thénardiers and raise her as his daughter. The film then moves ahead nine years. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), now a teenager, has fallen in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student revolutionary who is also being sought after by Eponine (Samantha Barks), the young daughter of the Thénardiers. In what has become known as the June uprising of 1832, Marius joins with his friend Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and his supporters in establishing the Friends of the ABC, a group seeking to free the oppressed lower class of France by rising against the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Phillipe and establishing a new French Republic.

 
One of the inspirations behind the uprising is a young boy, Gavroche (Daniel Huddlestone), who becomes a symbol of the ideals of the rebellion. Manning barricades in the streets, the revolutionaries, vastly outnumbered by government forces, are inspired by such songs as “Red and Black,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The songs say that, “When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start - when tomorrow comes, and asks us to reflect on the question has that relevance today “Have you asked of yourselves - what's the price you might pay?” Marius, who has paid a dear price in the crushing of the revolt and the death of many of his friends in the battle sings the soulful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” one of the most moving anthems of the film.
 

Though there would not be another student revolt until 1848, the stirring message of Les Misérables touches our yearning for freedom and justice. Hugo is a humanist and the story is a joint examination of radical politics and the need for forgiveness and kindness, of whether the Red of Love is more important than the Red of Revolution. Les Misérables is more than a grand spectacle and musical extravaganza. Its message of opposing social injustice and the domination of the many by the few also reminds us that charity and compassion must be the unifying force in any attempt to change the system.

 

GRADE: A

Howard Schumann


 
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