Les Mis

lesmisI’ve read a few bad reviews of the movie-musical Les Miserables and they’ve just reinforced my belief that movie reviewers are horrible people with tiny shriveled souls. OK, that’s mean of me. Movies, like music and books and everything, are completely subjective and I sort of get why some reviewers might think this movie is cheesy. To me it’s kind of like The Hobbit (which I also liked, but not nearly as much as I loved Les Mis): You have to go in expecting it to be over-the-top and a bit bombastic, and it helps if you’re deeply in love with the original source material. Which for me, with Les Mis, is not the Victor Hugo novel (I read an excerpt in French in high school and later an English translation of the whole book, but I have to admit neither made a big impression on me) but the stage musical, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times back in the late 80s/early 90s. For me, the musical IS Les Miserables, and the movie was a wonderful adaptation of that experience to the screen. (Warning: LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD).

I’ve always believed (and this is often reflected in my book reviews) that where you are in your own life when you see a movie or play or read a book has a huge impact on how you respond to it and how you remember it. I was in my early 20s when I saw Les Mis on stage and the fact that I was perpetually in love with one unattainable person or another (sometimes even the same people I was seeing the show with) contributed to the fact that Eponine was my favourite character. Seeing it now from my older-and-wiser (and happily married) perspective, I still think Eponine is the emotional heart of the story and I thought the actress/singer who played her in the movie (Samantha Barks) was fabulous. I cried every single minute she was on screen, far more than I did for Anne Hathaway’s Fantine at the beginning of the movie, even when Fantine is getting her hair chopped off and being forced into prostitution. Eponine is the poster girl for unrequited love and “On My Own” the ultimate torch song. Her death scene in Marius’s arms to the song “A Little Fall of Rain” was perfect.

Other than Eponine’s story, the politics of Les Mis probably move me more than the personal storylines, which is why “Do You Hear the People Sing?” was the trigger point at which I started crying in the movie and did not stop till the final credits rolled. I’ve always been moved by the idea of this tiny, doomed mini-revolution (tucked in between the better-known 1830 and 1848 revolutions) planned by a bunch of students, swiftly and tragically put down by the army. Lots of reviewers have drawn parallels between the appearance of this movie and last year’s Occupy campaigns, and there certainly are some parallels there — most poignantly, I think, in the fact that these idealistic young boys, mostly students from comfortable backgrounds, rise up on behalf of the poor of Paris — but the poor do not, in large numbers, rise to support them. They give the impression of being, to some extent, students playing at revolution (a criticism also levelled at many Occupiers) but they pay for it. Nobody ever died in an Occupy camp, but being a revolutionary in 1830s Paris was quite a bit grimmer and more dangerous and all the film’s revolutionaries (except Marius who gets rescued by Jean Valjean) are dead at the end. (Aaron Tveit as Enjolras stole the show at this point, from his first appearance to his unforgettable final moment).


In that sense, the revolution of Les Mis is far more remeniscent of last year’s Middle East uprisings than it is of the comparative safety of the Occupy camps. Particularly in view of what’s happening in Egypt now, it’s poignant to realize that Les Mis all happens 40 years after what we think of as “The French Revolution” — so in other words these student revolutionaries are people whose grandparents lived through the absolute upheaval of French society, the revolution that changed everything — and yet less than two generations later they find themselves once again under an oppressive system, fighting for freedom and justice.

When I first saw Les Mis on stage I was young and idealistic. Now I’m middle-aged and — still idealistic, to be honest. I realize that the entrenched injustice of political and economic systems is far too complex to be solved by a single glorious gesture, but I never stop being moved by the grand gestures no matter where in the world or when in history they occur. I believe that even if they’re as doomed as the one in Les Mis, revolutions inch us forward, force us to try for a better world.

What struck me far more in the movie than in any of the times I saw the stage play, however, was not the personal or the political but the spiritual themes of the story, and I think this is down to Hugh Jackman’s excellent portrayal of Valjean and Russell Crowe’s much-better-than-I-was-expecting Javert. I’ve often heard the story of “the Bishop’s candlesticks” near the beginning of Les Mis  used as a parable of grace (if you’re unfamiliar with the story: Valjean steals some silver plates from a kindly bishop who’s given him shelter for the night; when he’s dragged back by the police the bishop not only claims that he gave Valjean the silver freely, but says, “You left in such a hurry you forgot these” and also gives him a pair of valuable silver candlesticks, inspiring Valjean to clean up his act and start a new and better life. BTW I didn’t realize till someone pointed it out at the end that Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean, played/sang the part of the Bishop in the movie).

What I hadn’t thought about before was how much the entire story is about grace and how the Javert/Valjean conflict is really the conflict between law and grace. Javert even says “I am the law!” and he is so obsessed with the idea of justice that when grace is finally shown to him — Valjean has the chance to kill his old enemy but lets him go free — Javert literally cannot live with being a recipient of freely given grace, and chooses death and his own rigid idea of justice instead. Truly chilling, and I thought Russell Crowe really portrayed that beautifully in Javert’s final scene.

There’s so much more I could say about this movie — like how Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (HBC + SBC, as I like to call them) were so brilliant as the venal Thenardiers, the musical’s only hint of comic relief (but what a dark comedy it is!). But I’ll just finish by saying I went; I cried; I’d see it again. The movie version is a more-than-worthy adaptation and Les Mis remains by a huge margin my favourite musical of all time. I hope I never get so old and cynical that it fails to move me.



4 Replies to “Les Mis”

  1. Trudy – never get to that point where cynicism takes over the idealism. I admit to my students that I cannot read the final passage from Tale of Two Cities without choking up (and, yes, shedding a tear or two) and seeing Dark Knight Rises which was SO inspired by my favourite book had the same reaction at the end. I read the entire book (1500+ pages) this past semester as students wanted to study this work along with the fewer-paged tome TTC. I loved the book and the Priest’s character is so well developed compared to any previous film version. My 5 students who “read” the book (some didn’t, but really, REALLY wanted to) noticed the same spiritual message you identified above re: justice and mercy…Thanks for the review – I will take my Kleenex (c) box with me when I go see it.

    BTW – Eponine is one of the BEST characters in the book, IMHO.

  2. I had exactly the same experience as you did – I really felt the gap of over two decades since the last time I saw the musical, and I still can’t tell how much my reactions to the film are based on my age vs. this particular director’s interpretation. It had never occurred to me before that the student revolutionaries are not only brave and idealistic but also foolish (a foolishness that Valjean very clearly perceives). I don’t even know the name of the leader, but the actor who played him was incredibly magnetic, and I found myself thinking that any society that squanders such bravery and idealism has gone very far astray. Though his cause is doomed and his devotion to it misplaced, he is still an inspiring figure.

    I had recognized the law vs. grace conflict at the heart of the story before, but I do think the film did far more than the musical to emphasize the centrality of Valjean’s Christian faith. It was very clear that almost every word he sang was a prayer, and the final 20 minutes of the film captured so powerfully the hope of resurrection (a theme I hadn’t identified in the story before). While Fantine’s scenes early in the movie seemed a bit rushed to me, I thought her character was most powerful in those final scenes, where her hair is still shorn and yet she glows with redemption.

    1. I think the leader of the revolutionaries you mention is Enjolras, played by Aaron Tveit who I mentioned above … I don’t even remember that character from the stage musical, and in the movie I thought his performance was incandescent. I also agree that the movie makes Valjean’s faith much more central, and this is a needed contrast to Javert’s assertion that “mine is the way of the Lord.”

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