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Les Miserables – Tom Hooper: Against all the odds – a triumph



Les Miserables



Les Miserables – Tom Hooper

Against all the odds – a triumph: of conception, execution, and performance. Hooper has taken perhaps the most iconic post-war, quintessentially theatrical stage musical; successful beyond all expectation and initial critical reaction, and captured its spirit in the radically different aesthetic form of film.

The assurance with which Hooper threads his way through a series of critical directorial judgements, each of which could have sabotaged this powerful, moving film, is truly impressive. He uses the freedom of film to open out the playing space of Les Mis just enough to convey an atmospheric evocation of a politically turbulent Paris of the early 19th century; yet he stays in close to distil a keen sense of intensity and emotional power as Hugo’s idealistic tale of the ultimate triumph of hope over despair and a humanitarian faith in the courage of good men and women, whatever the practical pressure of necessity to act otherwise, to first recognize and then fight injustice – social and personal.

Hugo’s contrast between the spirit of justice, tempered with mercy; and the unbending rigidities of the law, indifferent to the impossible conflicts of responsibility created by random circumstance; is perfectly represented by the central narrative thread of Les Mis – the implacable legal absolutism of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) in his obsessive pursuit of Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean – sentenced to 20 years for stealing bread to keep his sister’s family from starving. Hugo’s moral sub-text represented by Valjean is the authentically Christian ethic of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – forgiveness, redemption; while Javert’s dogmatism sees a single illegal act, whatever its context or motivation, as irremediable, indicative of a sinful soul consigned to inevitable and deserved, eternal damnation.

If the moral framework of Les Mis is provided by Christian ethical sentiment; its spirit is very French: a profound belief in the possibility of instinctive goodness and honour, even, indeed especially, in the poor and oppressed. It is in this humanitarian idealism that it seems to me the deeper appeal of Les Mis resides. Of course the central story of Fantine (Ann Hathaway) struggling against poverty, deprivation and exploitation to protect her child Cosette, is rich in sentiment and pathos but while the characters engage our sympathy it is the wider possibilities of the courage to hope, the determination to survive with honour and integrity intact that makes the appeal of Les Mis so universal and inspirational.

I can’t remember a film in recent times where the commitment of the players is so tangible and total. Hugh Jackman is a revelation as Valjean with a performance of subtlety and nuance; this surpassed only by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, sometimes ethereal and detached in the stage version. Hathaway’s Fantine is the flesh and blood, viscerally passionate mother of Hugo’s imagination: used, abused and wronged but unwavering in her courage to save and protect her child. Although on screen for not much more than about 15/20 minutes overall, Hathaway is mesmerising and her I Dreamed a Dream conjured from a singing voice technically not much more than adequate, is one of those special, unique moments in cinema. Those few minutes are worth the price of admission in themselves and should, if there is any justice in such things, bring her the Supporting Actress Oscar she so richly deserves.

Other parts are equally well cast and judged: Eddie Redmayne’s fine voiced Marius extracts every frisson of sadness from Empty Tables; and Samantha Barks makes the most of Eponine’s spine-tingling On My Own. The chorus rouses us with the anthemic Red and Black, Drink with Me and Do You Hear The People Sing. Under Hooper’s careful guidance Jackman, gradually teasing out the limits of a fairly good voice, finally lets go with One day More, Bring Him Home and the reprised Who Am I?

I missed a little the rambunctious cathartic, theatrical release of tension represented on stage by the unspeakable Threnardier’s; but Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Coen’s sly, insinuating performances are still well judged. As the grown up Cosette, Amanda Seyfried has a pleasing soprano and a light touch for a part offering few opportunities to shine; needing to convince rather than impress. Ten-year old Isabelle Allen is touching as the waif-like young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone’s Gavroche suitably cheekily defiant. Crowe’s Javert took a little time to settle with me and is as near to marginal casting as it gets in this Les Miserables: but in the end his bluff, physically uncompromising presence works well in suggesting a man hiding his insecurities behind an uncompromising outward persona; a man morally lost and adrift when his prejudices are first challenged and then disproved.

In another brave and perfectly judged decision, Hopper opted to go for broke and record the soundtrack live, as played, contrary to the safer convention of recording in the studio and post-synching. Not only does this make the singing an integral part of the performances but I suspect created a sense of danger and risk that feeds directly through to the power and commitment of the performances.

The universal appeal and popular success of such an uncompromisingly operatic form with virtually no dialogue, based upon a 19th century French novel by a writer often sniffily intellectually dismissed by a cultural elite of his own countrymen, was always an unlikely phenomenon. But to see Les Miserables on stage was to fall under its spell thanks to the brilliance of Claude Michel Schönberg’s music and Herbert Kretzmer’s resonant English lyrics. By inspired direction, carefully nurturing the vocal limitations of his fine cast, Tom Hooper has done Schönberg and Kretzmer proud. He has added a new and impressive dimension to one of the best loved musicals of recent decades.

If you loved it on stage – see the film. If you haven’t seen it before – see the film. This is popular art of the very highest order. Let the melodies and anthems which have insinuated themselves into the consciousness of we who know the piece, benignly infect you as well. Really: do not miss.


Reports of spontaneous applause, even standing ovations greeting Les Miserables in British cinemas; and people moved to tears by it, add weight to the intriguing question of what it is in us that is touched so deeply by this piece with its uncompromising, non-populist aesthetic form.

It might be argued that our trust in idealism, political and moral was destroyed at 12.30 Central Time at Dealey Plaza Dallas Texas on November 22nd 1963*. Any fragments of innocent faith remaining were blown away first on April 4th 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis Tennessee at 6.01 Central Time**; and finally and definitively erased exactly 2 months later on June 5th 12.15 (Pacific Time) in the Kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles***.

As if to mock our democratic naiveté and credulousness, the revelations of the systematic, cynical venality of Richard Nixon’s White House exposed at Watergate and further fuelled by the revisionist post-hoc character assassinations of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr King, persuaded the American people and the wider democratic world to which they offered leadership, that not only had our heroes been destroyed but that they were never worthy heroes in the first place.

A healthy democratic scepticism gave way to a sophisticated cynicism, which despite the brief but flawed respite of the Clinton Administration, was amply reinforced by the self-serving inadequacies of actual political leadership, the nadir of which was the selfish, self-serving cynical hubris of 8 years of George W Bush.

The relief felt outside America at the signs of a re-kindled idealism within Barack Obama’s rhetoric was palpable; even if tempered by the limitations of implementation presented by a distrustful and disillusioned American electorate and a polarized electoral system.

My point, fanciful perhaps, is that there is an instinct deep within us as human beings that wants to believe, no even demands to believe – not in the perfectability of Man/Woman but that an instinct to recognise and resist injustice; a desire to respect and honour one’s fellow human beings is as real and verifiable as is the more easily proven prevalence of greed and self-interest.

While the sentiment and yes, elements of sentimentality of the lives within Les Miserables engages us on a personal level, the overwhelming success of this piece of popular art for me appears to strike a deeper chord within us – one which links the injustices and inequalities of Victor Hugo’s 19th century France with the ample examples of the same inequity and iniquities persisting almost 300 years later.

Philosophically my only reservation is perhaps the assumption of organised religions; whether the Catholicism of Hugo’s time or the more diverse faith groups of the 21st century, that without God(s) and faith, the instinct to resist injustice and risk all on behalf of one’s fellow man/woman, would not exist. It is again a very French philosophical perception that such an instinct to altruism and humanitarian empathy may be a given of human nature which religion uses and deploys rather than exclusively generates. That we ultimately have a choice between our better and our baser natural human instincts, unmediated by metaphysical assumption or next world rewards is itself a philosophical perspective powerfully represented in the French intellectual tradition of Camus, Sartre and Existentialism.

Of all the Arts, Music cuts straight to the heart; unmediated by words and reason: in this the rigorous operatic form of Les Miserables perfectly represents an immediacy of connection that appears, even in a popular culture in some degree hostile to it, to strike a resonant chord in people of very different cultures and traditions all over the world. That is an achievement that transcends even its undoubted commercial and financial success.

* The assassination of John F Kennedy
** The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King
*** The assassination of Robert Kennedy


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