Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: Les Misérables

"Do you hear the people sing?/Singing the songs of angry men?/It is the music of the people/Who will not be slaves again!"

There have been many film and television adaptations of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables, but it has taken more than 30 years for the musical version to reach the screen.  It seems a long time since Les Mis, along with Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, was the hit, long-running show everyone had to go see.  However, this is not to say that the story has lost its relevance.  Far from it.

For those of you living in a cultural vacuum, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, unfairly imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread.  Valjean is released on parole, and, thanks to a bishop's mercy, resolves to become a better man.  He assumes a different name and becomes a successful businessman and kind mayor.  But the intrepid Inspector Javert, the embodiment of the law, catches up with Valjean just as he is about to adopt the impoverished Cosette as a promise to her dying mother.  The two flee to Paris, and, years later, Revolution (of the 1832 variety) is in the air and Cosette is all grown up.  Naturally, she falls in love with one of the student revolutionaries, and Valjean is torn between keeping her to himself--and safe, now that Javert's in town to put down the uprising--and letting her go.

This newest version of  Les Mis, like the West End musical on which it is based, covers most of Hugo's novel, but dwells longest on the Revolution, and understandably so, as it provides the richest material for conflict--and stirring music.  Furthermore, in 1980, when the original French concept album was released, the barricades of '68 could not have been far from people's minds.  Easy parallels can be drawn between the Revolutions of the 19th Century and various movements of the 1960s; likewise, as I watched the student revolutionaries being fired on by soldiers, I couldn't help but think of the Occupy movement.  Hugo's interest in redemption from sin therefore becomes redemption of another sort--redemption of failed revolutions, redeemed by the hope that in the future they will not fail.

Directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper, Les Misérables (2012), deserves most of the hype it's been getting, though as I was watching it I could never shake the feeling that it would have been much better on stage.  The vocal performances, however, were excellent.  Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe tap into their musical backgrounds to bring Valjean and Javert to life, and Anne Hathaway will probably receive an Oscar nomination from her small but power role as Cosette's mother Fantine.  Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were hilarious as the Thénardiers, and Daniel Huttlestone was cheeky and adorable as young Gavroche.  I wasn't too fond of Eddie Redmayne as Marius, not because his performance was bad, but because I kept thinking he'd be more suited to playing a privileged rapist/murder on Inspector Lewis than a student revolutionary.

Other than that, most of what I didn't care for in Les Misérables come from the source texts--both the novel and the play.  Musically speaking, I can't help compare it to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that were its contemporaries.  Webber and his lyricists mastered turning even the most dry exposition into a catchy number; Les Mis, the English version, at least, has a lot of "I am singing what I am speaking" parts.  That being said, though, there are several memorable tunes--particularly "I Dreamed a Dream", "On My Own", and the above quoted "Do You Hear the People Sing?", which is even better in the original French.

My biggest issue with the story was Cosette and Marius.  Cosette suffers from Victorian Heroine Disease.  She's beautiful, virtuous, and BORING.  Men love her, but she doesn't seem to do anything other than being really sweet.  The more interesting women like Fantine and Éponine get killed off for their transgressions.  They don't get their happily ending like Cosette and Marius.  And that's another thing that bothered me:  as I was watching it, the ideological working of the narrative became very obvious.  The Revolution failed, and losing all those friends was sad, but only about one song's worth of sad.  Because the young hero goes back to his aristo granddad and marries the girl.  Who cares about the Revolution when there's a happily ever after!  And then Valjean dies and gets to go to heaven, where he joins everyone who died on the barricades--no more shooting, just singing!!

I'm not going to claim that the film--nor, indeed, the novel and the musical--doesn't offer alternative readings to this.  But part of the reason that I felt it would have been stronger on stage is the immediacy of the performance.  For the finale on stage, the singing actors are both dead--in the story--and alive in the presence of the living actor.  And so, there is hope for the future as they sing:

"Do you hear the people sing?/Say, do you hear the distant drums?/It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!"

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