Film Review: Les Misérables

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is the cinematic version of the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubel stage musical based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel.  Hooper’s film comes in at 158 minutes and is a ‘sung-through’ musical comprising about fifty songs, the most popular being, I Dreamed a Dream sung by Fantine, a ‘grisette’ turned prostitute played by Anne Hathaway. Hooper had all his actors sing live on set, there is no ‘count-in’ or predetermined tempo and the piano is following the pacing of the actor which is a first for a filmed musical. Orchestral music was added post-production. The outstanding voice is Eddie Redmayne’s tenor as revolutionary student Marius, especially in the song, A Heart Full of Love.

‘Les misérables’ are the working class, ‘the wretched poor’ of nineteenth-century French capitalism in Paris, but the film glosses over the poverty, disease, crime, prostitution, exploitation of the working class, and the inequalities of wealth in capitalism. Hugo was concerned with the ‘degradation of man by poverty and the ruin of woman by starvation’.  The ‘saintly’ Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, has served 19 years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. The film is Valjean’s search for redemption, and there is a Christian theme in songs, I Have Saved your Soul for God and Why did I allow this man to touch my Soul and teach me Love?  Hugo saw his novel as ‘a progress from nothingness to God.’ Valjean’s conversion supports Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

The characters of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, are the ‘comic relief,’ and their ‘rascally’ antics in Master of the House and Beggars at the Feast push the film into the Dickensian whimsy of Lionel Bart’s Oliver.  If the Thenardier couple are Fagin then the street urchin, Gavroche, with ‘cockney’ accent is the Artful Dodger.

The use of computer-generated imagery recreates the Parisian working-class districts of faubourgs and ‘cour des miracles,’ comprising dense streets and medieval alleyways, later destroyed by the ‘renovations’ under Haussmann which would better able the bourgeoisie to control the Parisian working class. A replica of ‘the Elephant of the Bastille’ was built in Greenwich which adds authentic historical context to the film.

The climax of the film is a futile, student-led Republican uprising, which actually took place in June 1832 against the ‘haute bourgeoisie’ monarchy of Louis Philippe and is portrayed in the songs At the Barricades and Do you hear the People Sing? Sixty million people worldwide have seen the stage musical,Les Misérables, but if going to see it could change the world then it would have been made illegal.

The 1831 working-class uprising of silk workers in Lyons who sang, ‘When our rule arrives, when your rule shall end, then we shall weave the shroud of the old world. Listen! Revolt is rumbling,” is a better subject for a ‘revolutionary’ film musical.

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