"Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again". If you'd like to see the clip, it's here. The positive vibe is by no means unanimous for the stellar film version of Victor Hugo’s iconic, sweeping novel about love, justice, revolution, revenge and forgiveness.
My father won a green, leather bound copy of "Les Misérables" as a school prize which stayed unread in his library until I discovered it in my early teens. The relentless, descriptive prose of the horrors and degradation of early nineteenth century Paris was endlessly fascinating, populated by gritty opportunists, grimily sore-encrusted, their hopeless eyes casting about in order to scratch a living from the hard, pitiless streets, contrasting with the young, bright-eyed idealists, ready to spill their blood on the barricades in the cause of revolution, captivated me for hours, curled up on a sofa. Hugo himself, a committed Republican, was a witness to the events of the July Rebellion of 1832, the last Republican stand in France's bloodstained revolutionary history, when students and radicals erected street barricades and exchanged gunfire with Government troops. Half of Paris had fallen to the mob and was completely cut off; Les Halles was briefly barricaded and impassable. It was interesting to notice echoes of the modern city appearing from time to time, as if by accident, and the final scene was clearly a reconstruction of the site now occupied by the vast and expanding shopping mall of Les Halles.
Hugh Jackman can sing, for sure, but the A list cast members were selected mostly for their box-office draw, not because they could necessarily hold a tune, so some might suggest that it is singing for its Oscar supper, at which table it will assuredly get a seat or two. Claude-Michel Schönberg's score is not easy to sing well - especially live – there was a gritty, down-to-earth feel to the sung dialogue, which held up well with ambitious staging and effects. Russell Crowe was, unfortunately, miscast and wasn’t really able to drive his character forward since he was outclassed musically. As the stoic, almost obsessive Javert, he did everyone a favour at the end by jumping off a bridge, but of all the well-known names, he didn’t really have the gravitas to carry off Jean Valjean’s relentless and pitiless pursuer. Some beautifully deft surprises – Cosette and Marius provided some rare, tender moments - and Éponine as the sad, forgotten heroine transferred well from the stage, yet maintains her early beauty, unlike Hugo's description of her later. He describes her descent from a privileged childhood into " a pale, puny, meagre creature", with a hoarse voice like "a drunken galley slave's", having been "roughened by brandy and by liquors". She wears dirty and tattered clothing, consisting solely of a chemise and a skirt. She is missing a few teeth, is barefoot, has tangled hair, bony shoulders, heavy brooding drooping eyes, and a prematurely-aged face with only a trace of beauty lingering. She had “the form of an unripe young girl and the look of a corrupted old woman; fifty years joined with fifteen.”
Lovers of literature have already weaved their own imaginary tapestries - there is, after all, more than sufficient material - but lovers of musicals might not enjoy this; the hybridization of the musical stage and big screen action might send them screaming from the theatre, but if all they want is the singing they can go buy a different album. I saw an early showing on the Champs-Élysées in the company of four others in the theatre - the French are less than enamoured with revisionist historians and dislike their literary heroes being adulterated with crass commercialism - to escape from a punishingly freezing day and, shamelessly exploitative British weepie as it undoubtedly was, I loved it.