Monday, December 24, 2012

Review: Les Misérables (film)

It is a saying (accredited to Josef Stalin) that is often referenced in times of extremities that “a loss of a thousand is a statistic but the loss of one is a tragedy.” And so it is in this manner, with the weight of encompassing the despair, the doubt, the spirit and the will of a nation in upheaval, that the individual characters in Victor Hugo’s narrative Les Misérables personify the human condition at its weakest, its strongest, when in its darkest hour and when in sight of a light at the end of the bleak, bleak tunnel.

Leading up to viewing the new film I recalled the memories I had of the musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg – watching a high school production of it and subsequently learning all the lyrics of Jean Valjean and making iTunes playlists. Contrary to this attachment however, I realised that I in fact knew not a speck of genuine information about the French Revolution (that was the one about letting the people eat cake, no?). However, I knew exactly what it was like to be starving and close to death and to steal a loaf of bread and to know the meaning of those nineteen years – a slave of the law! So let me add to the quote referenced above – the loss of many can be encompassed in the intense loss of an individual, and furthermore the loss of this individual can be expressed in a powerful five minute belting of questions, melodies, repetition and sometimes, harmony. Put together approximately three hours worth of live-singing, two extreme close up tear-jerking Adele-eat-your-heart-out heartbreak scenes (I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own respectively), and one man desperately seeking freedom from a haunting past – added to a dark cinema, a screen so giant it dare not let you miss a single tear dripping down Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) face, and a person getting a little choked up behind you, and there you have it. As if by osmosis from the suffering of a population to the individual to the song to the screen to you, you are now but a fellow traveller along the enigma of life.

I found the film a beautiful realisation of the complex tragedies and bittersweet triumphs of its characters. As cited previously, I am unsure of its historical accuracy (surely not all the young revolutionaries were as attractive as Eddie Redmayne & Aaron Tveit, however no complaints there), or for that matter its truthfulness to Hugo’s original text (it’s sheer length has always deterred me from reading it) or to the previous performances of the musical on stage (having only seen it once in a school hall). However I can attest to its genuine portrayal of human emotion – I found the close up framing during Valjean’s soliloquy What Have I Done? and Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) I Dreamed A Dream gave an intimacy distinguishably different from a theatrical experience. With nothing in sight but the frustrated questions and pacing of Valjean – “I feel my shame inside me like a knife/ He told me that I have a soul, / How does he know?” – and the despair charted in Fantine’s face – “I dreamed that love would never die / I dreamed that God would be forgiving” – these characters become the ultimate storytellers, the archetype of the human condition at the brink.
However, the film was of course not all close-ups and despairing. With the Thénardiers’ (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter) fast-paced tongue-in-cheek Master of the House giving some genius comic relief, and the innocence of at-first-glance love between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Redmayne) restoring some hope in humanity amongst the fighting and fear.

By the end of the film, I had almost forgotten I was watching a musical (besides the fact that I was actively suppressing the urge to sing along – not Rocky Horror, I reminded myself). For me, Les Mis stands in a genre separate to the general idea of musicals today – typified by uplifting songs sung by youths and accompanied by dancing such as most notably Glee. I found Les Mis to be less performance and more candid, separating it for me even from the film adaptation of Phantom of the Opera (however I do adore the film for many other reasons). I found this to its strength, however a person would most definitely have to be in the right mindset to appreciate the role that the music plays in the greater narrative of the film (it is one thing to explain something tragically, however another thing to come back to a chorus to drive the point home. Think of any recent Taylor Swift song).

When introducing the film, Jackman claimed it to be a labour of love, saying that he had never worked so hard on a production. It is emotionally exhausting to watch, let alone one can imagine how taxing to enact. I found all the characters believable and true to form, however I’m sure many debates will arise over the coming months. It’s not a film for a casual Saturday night dinner and movie, be warned, but you don’t need to be a diehard fan or know all the lyrics to appreciate it. Don’t stereotype it as your typical musical, but trust that if you have ever been heartbroken, at a crossroads, disappointed, uplifted, or overwhelmed, then there is a Les Mis song for you.

Les Misérables opens in cinemas from December 26th.

A special thank you to Jess for letting me see this with her. All images sourced from Les Misérables.

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