Les Miserables (*** 1/2)

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Les Miserables tells the life of one Jean Valjean, a French commoner imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. After release from incarceration after nineteen years, a future of hopelessness is averted by the surprising graciousness of a priest who refuses to condemn this damaged human. The rest of the story details how ValJean comes to terms with hope and virtue even as the world goes on being cruel. He is pursued relentlessly by a policeman named Javert who has no room for mercy, only the exacting application of the law. The story sets up and follows a clear duality between these two men, one struggling to live by the law of grace, the other by the law of the law. Victor Hugo’s narrative has a clear, refreshing favor for the perspective which exists for the sake of others over and against dehumanizing devotion to abstract principles.

The historical backdrop of the French Revolution which frames the latter half of the film underscores an unpopular idea: the essential connection between the bleeding God of the Christian faith and the bleeding heart of classical liberalism. The rousing spirit of this film and musical derives its power from a wholehearted affirmation of human life and dignity which may have been ignored by the Christian church from time to time (especially so in the time the film is set) but is no less central to the redemptive structure of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. As the prophet Ezekiel insisted to the Israel’s confused exiles, God “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Les Miz takes this idea as its very heart, building Jean ValJean around the very question of what it would do to a man were he to be convinced that every human life has value and attempt to live that way. The story’s happy ending is wrought of a man’s lifetime of hard choices in the direction of selflessness and virtue.

As a Les Miz neophyte, I’m not sure how to judge the spectacle I saw on the screen. Having neither read the book nor seen the stage production, nor a note of the music or word of the lyrics save what was in the trailer and on American Idol I have little to compare it to. I only very recently saw the 1998 non-musical film with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, a movie that works in spite of itself given the fantastic source material. I am getting these caveats off my chest so I can just simply say that I loved Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables with a full heart even if it is cinematically so-so.

Don’t get me wrong–the movie looks good. The sets, the costumes, all the gloomy grime of revolutionary France, it’s all flush with the lived-in details suggestive of realism. My problem here is that musicals by the twisted and necessary logic of their genre are an abstraction from reality (even more so than theater proper or films in general) and this adaptation frequently aims at a contemporary grittiness that I found distracting. I am usually put off by how clean sewer water looks in most television and film, but no such complaint here! It’s disgusting, as is reasonable. But when your narrative structure is this thematically typological and scene after scene you’re going for rousing emotional response the subtlety of the real seems like a tertiary concern. It’s Broadway, kids! Be creative.

Analogous to its visual realism are the performances: powerful, subtle acting from all of the main players with fantastic singing to boot. I had heard that Hugh Jackman could sing, but act? Wow, Wolverine never felt this conflicted about anything. Anne Hathaway is as good as has been said, her “I Dreamed a Dream” a full-body ballad of bruised hope. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises, she’s walked away from two major releases this year stealing the show in a supporting role. It’s a film about the righteous value of a human life and these actors bring it home. What might be lost in a crowded theater is potently evident on the big screen: you’ll be drawn in by the potent drama of their arresting performances. Otherwise you’re just a skulking Javert.

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3 thoughts on “Les Miserables (*** 1/2)

  1. truzzi says:

    Just a quick note on an oft-made mistake: The movie actually begins some 20-odd years AFTER the French Revolution (1789–1799). The battle in question is part of what is sometimes called the June Rebellion or the 1832 Paris Uprising. The blippiest of blips on the historical radar, but then that’s sort of Hugo’s point, isn’t it?

    This mistake is made even more often by people who’ve only seen the musical on stage, as it doesn’t even have handy title cards to help the audience out.

    Nice review!

  2. mikerad83 says:

    I knew it wasn’t the Revolution proper, but I assumed that the themes of class, religion and democracy were common to the two events. Thanks for the feedback. 🙂

  3. mikerad83 says:

    Also, despite my degree in history I’m a little fuzzy on Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, except that a lot of people died sooner and more horribly than they might have under better conditions.

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