- A Review of Les Misérables
The Point sent a rather reluctant Graeme McIver beyond the barricades to review the phenomenon that is Les Misérables as it moves from the theatre onto our cinema screens. Read on and prepared to be dazzled by talk of revolution, deism, and Russell Crowe’s dodgy singing.
Les Mis, the film so good Graeme went to see it twice…
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
'All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come'
On the morning of 9th of October 1985 it is probably fair to say that the phrase “Les Misérables” perfectly summed up the mood amongst the cast, musicians and producers of a musical of that name staged at the Barbican Centre in the heart of the City of London. An ambitious attempt to transfer the famous novel by Victor Hugo from page to stage appeared to have failed…well…les miserably! As producer Cameron Mackintosh and the members of his company read the reviews of their opening night their collective hearts must have sunk. Some of the most influential theatre critics of the day panned the show’s first night. Nick-named, “The Glums” initial reviews were scathing. The broadsheets felt that it was sacrilege for one of the finest works of literature to be trivialised into a musical. “Witless and synthetic,” said one whilst Francis King of the Sunday Telegraph describes it as, "a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness". The tabloids on the other hand, less concerned with Hugo’s legacy simply felt it was dull, turgid and far too long. (A bit like this review!) Others said that unlike Mackintosh’s hit show “Cats” the musical would not even transfer to the West End never mind Broadway. Yet in the days before Twitter, Facebook et-al, audience reaction and word of mouth ensured that Les Misérables would overcome those early critical impediments to become the most popular, acclaimed and successful piece of musical theatre of all time.
The iconic Illustration of Victor Hugo’s Cosette, depicted by Émile Bayard
As the show approaches its record breaking 29th consecutive year it has played to over 60 million people in over 300 cities in 42 countries across the globe. The original songs of French writers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer have been further translated into another 22 languages. Following a raft of awards for the theatre production, Les Misérables the musical, (there have been at least two film adaptations of the book) has finally made it to the silver screen.
I have to admit from the outset of this review that the global phenomenon that is “Les Mis” has until recently largely passed me by. Other than hearing Susan Boyle’s memorable rendition of one of the show’s most popular songs on Britain’s Got Talent I can honestly say that during its 28 years of global supremacy the paths of myself and Hugo’s hero Jean Valjean had never crossed. Ever since watching director Tom Hooper’s epic film version however, I can see just why this particular show has gripped and enthused millions of people across the world.
Victor Hugo’s classic novel seems a highly unlikely blueprint for a successful piece of musical theatre. The English translation of the title “Les Misérables” can lead to a misunderstanding and understate just who and what it is that Hugo is portraying in his book. It does not mean the sad, the miserable, the gloomy or the unhappy. It refers instead to the chronically poor, the dispossessed and the utterly wretched. It is a story that places, “the scum of the street”, convicts, whores and thieves at its heart. The hero is deemed by society to be a violent, dangerous criminal whist the villain is an incorruptible man of faith and upholder of the law.
The story of Jean Valjean, a recently released convict who had been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his hungry family spans the years between 1815 and the summer of 1832. The book culminates in Paris during the failed June Rebellion where student radicals and sections of the working class rose up in an attempt to overthrow the Orléanist monarchy of Louis Philippe. After leaving Toulon, Valjean’s life takes a turn for the better when the Bishop of Digne, in an act of what appears to Valjean as unfathomable kindness, gifts his church’s collection of silver to the ex prisoner after he is caught by the police robbing the church. Rather than turn him over to the authorities the Bishop lies and says the loot was instead a gift. Telling Valjean he has “bought his soul for God” he urges him to use the silver wisely and become a better man. (Given Hugo’s disdain for organised religion then I am sure that the Catholic Church will be relieved at its portrayal in the film given the current difficulties it faces, not least in Scotland.) Valjean vowing to leave his previously sinful and wretched life behind, breaks his parole and embarks on a journey of personal salvation under a new, assumed identity.
Hugo described the narrative of Les Mis thus;
“The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”
Les Misérables was released in 1862. Hugo’s publishers staggered the manuscript issuing the book in installments and it was an immediate sensation. Ironically, just like the musical, the novel met with little critical acclaim but people ignored the reviews and bought it in their thousands. (During the American Civil War, Confederate General Robert E Lee encouraged his officers to carry a copy as he and others believed the book symbolised their cause.)
Victor Hugo is a national institution in France. Along with Les Mis he is most famous for his book Notre-Dame de Paris (better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as well as being a noted poet and significant political figure. Hugo lived through some of the most tumultuous times in French history. Born in the years following the French Revolution he witnessed events such as the downfall of Napoleon, (Hugo’s father had been a highly decorated General in Bonaparte’s army) revolutions in 1830, 1832, 1848, the Canut revolts in Paris and Lyon and the Paris Commune of 1871. Whilst never a Marxist, Hugo was a man of the left. His works highlighted the plight of the poor and the working class although at times he could be conservative in his outlook and views. He had a troubled private life, tragically losing two of his children. Léopold, his first son died in infancy whilst his daughter Léopoldine and son in law both drowned in a boating accident on the Seine when she was just 19 years old. Friends believed that Hugo never fully recovered from the tragedies.
His political journey saw him move from being a supporter of monarchy to becoming a staunch republican. He was also initially a man of devout Christian faith with respect for the orthodoxies and structure of the Catholic Church. However, by the time of his death in the Channel Islands in 1885 he had turned his back on organised religion and had moved instead to Deism, the belief that God does exist but that conclusion is reached based on reason rather than the teachings and superstitions of a hierarchical church. His will stated;
"I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be taken to the cemetery in the hearse customarily used for the poor. I refuse the prayers of all churches. I believe in God."
Following the revolution of 1848, Hugo was elected to both the Constitutional and the Legislative Assembly in Paris. Just three years later he was forced into exile in the Channel Islands as Louis Napoleon seized power in a coup d’état and listed the writer as an enemy. Following the Franco/Prussian war of 1870 Napoleon was overthrown and Hugo returned to Paris were 500,000 citizens turned out to welcome him home. Ill health meant that he returned to Guernsey to live out the final years of his life. In the months before his death he wrote a letter to “The Rich” where he states;
“You, you are the dark clouds of privilege. Be afraid. The true master is about to knock at the door….I come to warn you. I come to denounce you in your own bliss. It is made out of the ills of the others. Your paradise is made out of the hell of the poor…The human race has been made by you slaves and convicts, you have made of this earth a dungeon. Light is wanting, air is wanting, virtue is wanting. The workers of this world whose fruits you enjoy live in death. Tremble ! The incorruptible dissolutions draw near; the clipped talons push out again ; the torn-out tongues take to flight, become tongues of flame scattered to the winds of darkness, and they howl in the Infinite. They who are hungry show their idle teeth, Paradises built over hells totter…It is the red dawning on Catastrophe. Ah! This society is false. One day, and true society must come. Then there will be no more lords; there will be free, living men. There will be no more wealth, there will be an abundance for the poor. There will be no more masters, but there will be brothers. They that toil shall have. This is the future. No more prostration, no more abasement, no more ignorance, no more wealth, no more beasts of burden, no more courtiers-but light.”
These words were considered extreme by French liberal society of the time but Hugo was attacked from the left by the likes of Proudhon and Karl Marx. Proudhon, probably best remembered for his statement, “all property is theft” accused Hugo of being, “unable to grasp, and adhere to, the movement of history". Marx went further stating that Hugo was, "more concerned with individual moral conflicts, involving heroes and villains, than … in understanding the realities of the class struggle".
This criticism, leveled by Marx seems especially true in the case of Les Misérables where the story of Jean Valjean is very much about personal, rather than collective salvation. Yet the history of France, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 through the June Days of 1848 to the Paris Commune in 1871 is a history of collective struggle and sacrifice.
This review however, (yes I know…1,600 words and still nothing about Russell Crowe) is not about Hugo’s book, but of the film inspired by the musical. It would be true to say that the conversation in the Pavilion Cinema Galashiels prior to the movie was not so much Proudhon and Marx as Jackman and Hathaway. It was not so much whether all property was theft, deism or the sighs of oppressed masses but was Russell Crowe’s singing really going to be that bad, (it was a bit bad) or could a much loved and revered stage show transfer onto the big screen?
I sat there, all brooding and skeptical, (I had wanted to go and see Django Unchained) ready to pick ultra left holes in the historical accuracy of the representation of the revolutionaries and their barricades, but instead found myself totally engrossed and falling for Les Mis in the same way that many of the 60 million theatre goers across the world have.
I thought Les Misérables was a stunning film from its epic opening to its emotional and inspirational conclusion on the barricades of Paris. The cast, led by Hugh Jackman’s Valjean are in the main excellent, (we’ll revisit Russell Crowe’s singing later) particularly Anne Hathaway who deservedly won an Oscar for her role as the tragic Fantine.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter add a much needed comic element as the grotesque Innkeepers the Thénardier’s. During his trademark solo, “Master of the House” Cohen uses the only French accent in the entire piece, reminiscent of characters from the BBC sitcom Allo Allo. It is during this song that a surprisingly topical verse is introduced. I’m sure any representatives from Findus, Tesco or IKEA’s meatball suppliers present would be squirming in their seats;
“Food beyond compare
Food beyond belief
Mix it in a mincer
And pretend it's beef
Kidney of a horse
Liver of a cat
Filling up the sausages
With this and that
Director Tom Hooper, (he of The Kings Speech fame) made a controversial and brave decision to have the actors sing live rather than take the traditional route of dubbing in perfect singing performances later. Some lovers of the musical may regret this loss of singing quality but in return the actors deliver much more believable and heartfelt performances. From Jackman’s Valjean's Soliloquy early in the movie to Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables towards the end, this decision allows the audience to make a connection that would have been lost in a more polished and sanitised version. It is Hathaway however, delivering the films best known song, “I Dreamed a Dream” that best vindicates Hoopers choice. In a film of epic sweeps, of grandiose sets and the use of stunning natural scenery, the powerful simplicity of a lingering, single close up during the song makes, I think, for one of the most memorable and evocative movie scenes of all time.
The song, until now most famous for Susan Boyle’s eccentric but brilliant reality TV performance has been moved from its original place in the musical which may upset some Les Mis traditionalists. The character of Fantine originally sings the song after being fired from her job in Valjean’s factory and looks back on her relationship with men, and in particular the father of her child who abandoned them both. Hooper moves the song to a slightly later part of the story where Hathaway delivers the words, half singing; half in a sobbing rage, at a point when her character has endured utter wretchedness, misfortune and misery…quite literally a personification of Les Misérables. Forced to sell her hair, her teeth and finally and most degradingly her body in order to pay for doctors bills for her child Cosette, the song’s lyrics become much more powerful and poignant given their new context.
And still I dream he'll come to me
That we'll live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed
Oscar winner Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine
As the film progress through the years each new timeframe is introduced with a set piece scene highlighting the plight of the poor. The remarkable opening scene set in the docks of Toulon in 1815 gives us an insight into the appalling conditions suffered by Valjean (prisoner 24601) and his fellow convicts. When the scene moves to the coastal town of Montreuil-sur-Mer some eight years later we see the starving poor outside the gates of a factory owned by Valjean under her new nom de guerre Monsieur Madeleine. Finally, the action moves to Paris in 1832 where we are given a tour of the Paris slum of Saint Michel by street urchin Gavroche. Hugo took inspiration for the character of young Gavroche from the painting, “Liberty Leading the People” by French artist Eugène Delacroix. The artwork depicts Liberty in the female form, bare breasted, the tri-colour of France in one hand, bayonet in the other, leading the people over the bodies of their fallen comrades at the barricades of the July Revolution of 1830. Over her left shoulder is the image of a young boy, from the streets of Paris, pistols in hand, leading from the front.
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix
The revolution of 1830 led to Charles X from the House of Bourbon being replaced by the more liberal, constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe d'Orléans. Life for the vast majority of the population was no better under the new regime and resentment simmered, fuelled by workers, student radicals, Bonapartists and republicans angry that the blood shed at the barricades had resulted in yet another King on the throne of France. When the one man, General Lamarque, considered most sympathetic to the ordinary people of France succumbs to cholera, the revolutionaries and workers seize their chance to rally people to their cause as his funeral procession winds its way through the Parisian streets. It is here that the stirring revolutionary anthems of Les Mis are aired most notably Red/Black and Do You Hear the People Sing as the barricades are erected.
Red - the blood of angry men!
Black - the dark of ages past!
Red - a world about to dawn!
Black - the night that ends at last!
A number of personal relationships are central to the film. Valjean to Fantine and his adopted daughter Cosette and in turn her relationship with Marius the student revolutionary, Eponine, the daughter of the Ternadiers unrequited love for Marius and finally the bond between the radical students, led by the charismatic Enjolras, from The Friends of the ABC…a play on the French word abaissé – meaning the lowly. The driving force of the film however is the relationship between Jackman’s ex-con Valjean and Crowe’s Inspector Javert, the incorruptible policeman tracking him down for breaking his parole.
Crowe’s acting is good and he has a strong screen presence essential for a character as crucial to the plot as Javert but his singing in my opinion is one of the few failures of the film. Don’t get me wrong, if he were in your local am/dram production of Half a Sixpence you might think he was great, but in the company of more accomplished vocalists he struggles. To be fair to Crowe he has subsequently agreed that in his case at least, post production of his voice may have been advantageous, however that would have broken from Hooper’s overall vision.
Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert during one of his less dodgy on-screen appearances
The dynamic between Valjean and Javert is at the core of the film. The audiences sympathies lie not with Javert, the personification of so called honesty and the rule of law but with the criminal Valjean, forced to break the law by necessity and circumstance. Javert is ruthless in his pursuit of any who deviate from the law regardless of their motives. Whilst throughout the film Valjean appeals to the stubborn and obstinate Javert for understanding and mercy, the Inspector is simply unable to deviate from upholding values he sees as immovable as the stars in the heavens. Tellingly in one exchange the uncompromising Javert informs Valjean that he was born inside a jail;
“I was born with scum like you,
I am from the gutter too”
For me, it is characters like Javert who have played much more terrifying and insidious roles throughout human history than the notorious despots and dictators…what the political theorist Hannah Arendt described as the Banality of Evil. From Bergen Belsen to Port Elizabeth, from Santiago to Saigon, crimes against humanity have been facilitated and committed on the whole not by Machiavellian, moustache twirling psychotic individuals but by loyal, unquestioning and efficient public servants such as Javert. I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote, “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Marx’s critique of Hugo seems never more valid than in the penultimate scene between Javert and Valjean. The Inspector is captured and awaits the outcome of a people’s court for acting as a police spy behind the barricades. Valjean asks to be allowed to deal with him. The revolutionaries grant the request in the belief that Javert will be executed. In fact, as part of his quest for personal redemption Valjean lets Javert go free. An act that that showed personal honour, kindness and mercy but risked the lives of many others behind the barricades who would have to face Javert again.
The revolution ended in failure for the Radicals and was brutally suppressed by the National Guard. The people did not rally to the cause in the numbers Enjolras and his comrades had hoped for. Valjean manages to spirit the injured Marius away from the barricades and brings him home to Cosette. One of the most poignant moments of the film is when the normally emotionless Javert pins his own medal for bravery and service onto the body of the dead child Gavroche following the storming of the barricades. It is the beginning of a dawning realisation for the Inspector that leads him to question his previously unshakeable belief in the right of the law and his role in enforcing it.
The film ends with Valjean completing his personal road to redemption having made his peace with God. Victor Hugo’s deism shines through in Valjean’s dying words, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
The camera then cuts away to a monumental barricade on the streets of Paris where thousands join together to reprise the anthem “Do you Hear the People Sing”. The revolutionary words are now changed to reflect the idea that it is in the next world that the poor, wretched, Les Misérables will be rewarded;
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
At this point there were few dry eyes in the house. Whilst I felt a little let down by the individual/religious rather than collective/political salvation offered by the film’s finale then you must be dead inside if you are not at least a bit stirred by the emotion of it all. In my case, as the banners waved above the giant barricade and the music reached its climactic crescendo I was suddenly overcome with the desire to bombard the Tory Club in Selkirk with cannon. (Disclaimer from The Point’s Legal Advisors…this is obviously a joke and is in no way meant to represent any threat to the life or property of the Conservative supporting minority of the small Scottish Borders town from 19th century projectile firing, high calibre artillery pieces.)
At the very least it will surely motivate you enough to sign an online petition against the bedroom tax.
Les Mis is not without weaknesses. Some critics have complained about its length and unrelenting bleakness. I cannot agree with either of those conclusions. One thing that did take a bit of getting used to was the fact that almost every word was sung rather than spoken. Much like watching a foreign language film with subtitles, if it's good and holding your interest you eventually forget they are there. A minus mark for me were the courting scenes between Cosette (Anna Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) which seemed out of place with the rest of the movie. The cherry blossoms, butterflies, sickly sweet flirting and doe-eyed warbling of Seyfried did make me hope at one point that the National Guard may arrive and start shooting at the love struck young couple but ultimately it does not detract from the overall experience.
The film/musical has universal appeal in that it examines emotions of love, loss, injustice, redemption, religion and rebellion. What makes it such a memorable and unforgettable experience however, and explains just why it has become such a successful theatrical juggernaut is the music and the songs of the composers Schönberg and Boublil (with English lyrics by Kretzmer). In my view they have created one of the most remarkable works of modern times. Bring Him Home, I Dreamed a Dream, One Day More, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Do You Hear the People Sing, Red/Black, Look Down, On My Own…there are just so many superb musical moments.
If you want to see the show in its all encompassing orchestral and pitch perfect glory then you can currently buy the 25th Anniversary DVD for the reasonable price of a fiver in the country’s two leading supermarkets. There are also many clips of the show available on YouTube. The one off event at London’s O2 arena features the stunning vocal talents of Alfie Boe as Valjean, Lea Salonga as Fantine, Samantha Barks (who reprises the role of Eponine in the film) and Norm Lewis as Javert. It is also worth seeing for the superbly over the top performances of Matt Lucas and Jenny Galloway as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier.
I have found my initial misgivings and indifference to Les Mis were misplaced. Just days after watching the film with my wife I returned with my Mum and daughters for another look beyond the barricades. I recommend this film to all socialists, radicals, supermarket hamburger providers and music lovers everywhere. Give it a try…you might even find you enjoy Russell Crowe’s singing.
If, as I hope, Scotland votes to become an Independent Country in 2014 we will have to look at finding a new national anthem. My preference would be for Hamish Henderson’s rousing hymn to Internationalism, “The Freedom Come Aa Ye” rather than the current favourite Flower of Scotland. If we can’t reach agreement however, I would recommend that the nation could do worse than turn to two Frenchman and a South African born English journalist for some inspiration. You never know…a rousing version of this might even help the Scottish Football team actually win a game.