Movies / Movie Reviews

Les Misérables – a Musical about Redemption through Love

By Hervé St-Louis
January 13, 2013 - 22:59

I love Victor Hugo's novels and always felt that we didn’t study his work enough in school. Hugo wrote seminal 19th century novels that only Émile Zola’s oeuvre could compete against. But whereas Zola was an early modern realist, Hugo was something else, not exactly a romantic but his work was epic as well. The adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables was adapted into a musical play in 1980 in France and translated into English in 1985. The Christmas Day blockbuster Les Misérables is a film adaptation of the play, retaining much of the same songs and simplified plot.

Jean Valjean a petty criminal is condemned to 19 years of hard labour after stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s family and after attempting to escape several times. In the eyes of the law, he is on probation for life and must report to the authorities every 30 days. But Valjean, after attempting to steal silverware from a cathedral where a bishop had welcomed him for the night, vows to change and, as the priest suggest, become a man saved by God. Valjean nevertheless tears his probation papers apart and began a new life in Montreuil where he starts a new factory and becomes mayor of the city. Police inspector Javert has been on the trace of Valjean for years and when he witnesses and act of strength that only the latter could have performed, he seeks to arrest the fugitive. But Valjean has to honour a promise made to a dying grisette turned prostitute and become the new legal guardian of her young daughter Cossette. Valjean escapes with Cossette trying to lead a decent life, but everywhere they go, they are hunted by Javert, vagrants and threatened by the background of a new anti-royalist uprising in Paris.

Hugo’s stories have lent themselves to wonderful and successful adaptations in other media like film and animation through engaging plotlines and epic stories that mix in historical facts with personal hardships. William Shakespeare is considered by many one of the best playwright and author ever. But I would argue that Hugo’s lengthy novels reach the same heights while being closer to our realities and our century. Conflicts like those portrayed in Les Misérables share many hints of current conflicts like Occupy and the 99%. Hugo’s work, like Zola’s, denounced the destruction of humans in a society without social nets, allowing the poor – the miserables to fend for themselves or die trying as best as they could.

The kind of misery brilliantly highlighted in Les Misérables was probably similar in industrializing England, Germany and Belgium. It offered no escape to many, like Fantine, Cossette’s mother, played by actress Anne Hathaway. Les Misérables’s director, Tom Hooper chose to create long shots of various actors like Hathaway signing long monologues straight in the camera. Very few, like Marius’s Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, performed by British actor Eddie Redmayne had cuts. Hathaway sang a long passage looking at the audience and crying at the right moment in one shot. I supposed that this was quite a feat for a film but that the many actors that have played Fantine since the first musical have performed as well and if not better without the benefit of cuts and reshoot until the perfect performance is captured by a camera.

Listening to a musical always make me wonder if they are occurring in some parallel universe where people cut to chants every five minutes and some imaginary orchestra appears in the background to support their performances. As the story of Les Misérables is over the top itself, perhaps a musical is the best vehicle for such play.

What I found interesting is how in Hugo’s work, redemption through faith and God was not yet foreign to his world, unlike some of the more anti-clerical forces that were at play in the same period of time when he wrote the novel. When the actors sing in the last scene of the film that love of another person is also love for God, it is almost a religious statement that would be challenged by many secular viewers these days. But hidden behind a musical paramour Les Misérables manages to move audiences with an ageless message that love conquers all, without falling into socialist dogma.

Rating: 10 /10

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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