A musical for rebellion

Feb. 2013 Miserables

By TYLER MACKINNON

With Oscar night right around the corner, this iconic book-turned-play-turned-film is taking theatres by storm—and for good reason. “Les Miserables” combines superb drama, action, romance and tragedy. Written by French literary giant Victor Hugo over a century and a half ago, it is remarkable, if not a bit depressing, to see how many of the political and economic issues addressed in the novel and the musical retain their currency with audiences today.

“Les Miserables” is not an easy story to tell, particularly in a movie format. It consists of several plots, each quite separate, until they converge in a great climactic rebellion in the second act. With roughly a dozen different major characters—each having different origins, trajectories and motives—it can get a bit confusing to those who are not familiar with the general plot.

Theatre productions can usually get away with story gaps due to the understood limits of cast, space, and budget, leaving the holes to be filled in by audience imagination. Film does not enjoy this luxury, posing a real challenge to the producer and director. Luckily, Universal Pictures was able to hire Tom Hooper (“King’s Speech”) to direct, and then UP gathered a star-studded cast to bring this amazing project to fruition.

“Les Miserables” starts in 1815 and climaxes in 1832, in the two-day-long June Rebellion, in which students tried to re-establish the republic and end the suffering of the masses. With many gains of the revolution of 1789 just a distant memory for the French working class, the country faces a return of the Bourbon monarchy after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

The film centres on a former prisoner on parole, living in France, named Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman). Upon his release he violates his parole conditions in an attempt to create a new life for himself. On the way he develops a moral code so selfless and good it seems Jesus-like. Despite his reformed ways, however, Valjean is under constant pursuit by French Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). He refuses to believe that a criminal can ever reform. His views on law and crime are so black and white that he resembles a musical caricature of Batman.

A sub-plot involves a love triangle between Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cossette; a young Parisian revolutionist who is organizing the June Rebellion; and the daughter of comic-relief thieves. The film introduces several other characters, most notably Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Although she dies soon after being introduced, Fantine completely steals the show when she sings the classic “I Dreamed A Dream.” Hathaway is sure to win an Oscar for this, not only for her excellent singing voice, but because her performance revealed the horror faced by working-class women at the time.

Political issues percolate to the surface. At the very start of the film, police repression is quite visible as many of those labelled as criminals are guilty only for minor crimes, such as stealing a loaf of bread. Musical numbers dramatize the growing tension between France’s working class and its ruling elites so evident in the gross inequalities of urban life. It is these tensions that build to the climax, demonstrating the need for working people to stand up, get organized and fight against any and all oppressive regimes.

The film does a great job in showing how the short-lived barricades failed to topple France’s new capitalist regime but would inspire revolutions to come. The young students who led the charge for freedom and equality saw their stand as a step towards a better world, and that only by being united on a principled basis could they smash tyranny.

Although the story is a tragedy in every meaning of the word (seriously, you would have to be a black-hearted capitalist not to get teary-eyed by the end), “Les Miserables” is truly an inspirational film. The music, the characters, and the political themes work so well together that, even though this epic has been on the big screen before, Hooper and his cast can be proud that they have brought “Les Miserables” and its message to the 21st century at a mere 158 minutes. I encourage everyone to go and hear the people sing!