Les Miserables is not exactly an unknown entity. The musical has been on stage for the past twenty-five years, and (rightly) has a reputation for being one of the best the West End can offer.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, it is a highly emotive, almost Dickensian tale, of an ex-convict called Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) trying to make his way in a society that has done so much to grind him down. There to ensure Valjean, or “Prisoner 24601”, never forgets his past is Javert (Russell Crowe). The film explores the themes of mercy, justice and morality as these two characters’ fates are intertwined over the next twenty years.
There’s also a lot of singing. And crying.
My reckoning is in the future, scientists will use Les Miserables as a test for the emotional intelligence of highly-advanced androids. Since anyone who can sit through this film without shedding a single tear is surely devoid of all humanity.
In adapting the musical for the screen, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) remains largely transparent. Sets are big, but still ‘feel’ artificial. There are few large, sweeping shots, aside from introducing us to new time periods. Instead, and especially during the most emotive songs, Hooper sits with his camera largely static, like an audience member enraptured by what’s happening “on stage”.
This is especially affective during Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) “I Dreamed a Dream” all filmed in one take, with the character sobbing her way through the realization of how far she’s fallen. With the camera off centre, it as though there is too much pain for it to be shown centre stage.
Arguably this trick is over-used in subsequent scenes, showing either a lack of creativity from Hooper or simply a straight-forward trust in the power of the source material.
Of course it is this power that shines through again and again. The songs have a way of getting to the heart of human despair that few others have managed to do. It is a musical that truly ‘gets’ the way songs unlock emotions within us in a way no other art form can.
The story also gets to the heart of the problem that exists at the centre of Christianity (or arguably any moral system). That is, the battle between morality, mercy and the law.
Valjean represents the need to show mercy, even to people who may not deserve it. His unwavering commitment to this cause makes him a hero in the very traditional sense. Just as committed, however, is Javert to “justice” or the letter of the law. Both characters are unwavering in their morality, but the nature of the impact it has on the people around them is very different. In that way there are obvious parallels with the biblical account of Jesus and his interaction with the uber-religious Pharisees.
In direct contrast to these two characters are the pub landlord, Thénardier, (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter). Both have an entirely amoral and opportunistic worldview with no loyalty, but to the acquisition of material wealth at the expense of others.
Les Miserables, with all these very Christian themes running through it, and specific sense of place in nineteenth century France could at first seem like a story from a bygone era. Yet, there is a reason this story is so well-loved. It is a battle-cry for the political elite to stop ignoring the poor they would rather label as ‘skivers’, as well as for the religious “Javert’s” of this world to stop ignoring the hurt and pain such fervour can cause to those who need protecting the most. As such, the story has a timelessness to it that means this, the seventh adaptation of the novel for the big screen, probably will not be the last.