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Unease with Les Mis

Laura Ludtke

Tom Hooper
Les Misérables
Universal Pictures
11 January 2013 (UK)


There is no other way to describe the effect of Les Misérables—whether as a novel, musical, or film—than as a phenomenon. If the novel is a weighty tome (three, to be precise) and the musical a sensation, the film is more like an epic wave, crashing interminably on a theatre near you. This wave, however, is endowed with the power to enchant, delight, and despair.

The movie endeavors to preserve the emotional intensity and veracity of the stage show by recording the musical performances live on film. This decision encourages comparison with the original London cast from 1985 and, while the vocal performances in the 2012 film version were adequate and in some instances transcendent (in particular of the young Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche and moments from Anne Hathaway’s expansive performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), they are never quite as ardent or as nuanced as in the original. At the same time, the power of Les Misérables as a cinematic experience lies in its ability to consume its audience through visual spectacle and to invigorate them with its much-beloved score.

For many, viewing Les Misérables may have a palimpsestic effect. In the film, the way the characters lives unfold, refold, and reform around one another exploits the confined feeling of the warren-like structure of Parisian quartiers in the nineteenth century to a greater extent that can be achieved on the screen. Characters, plots, and sadness are caught in an eternal recurrence that can only be resolved and transformed through song. Hooper’s cinematic rendition of the two most heart-wrenching ballads of the film, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On My Own’ overlay the parallels between Fantine’s and Eponine’s situations (as sung by Hathaway and Samantha Barks respectively), as though suggesting that one desperate, dying woman is interchangeable with another. Both filmed up-close and from above, the singers are forced from wide open sets (the shipyard, the street) into increasingly small, uncomfortable, and constricted spaces (the coffin, the street corner). The viewer has the uneasy experience of being beside them, on top of them, quite nearly inside of them.

Les Misérables is filmed, cast, costumed, and set in such a way as to make this unease with poverty, exploitation, injustice, and misery inescapable. Were it not for the multiple cameras following the film’s stars with great proximity, one might miss any of these elements or, worse, the overall effect might be diminished. The microscopic detail in which every scene is presented ensures that these details are lodged inside the memory of the viewer: the number of stars in the Parisian sky when Javert (Russell Crowe) sings ‘Stars’, the theatrical legedermain performed by the Thréardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) in ‘Master of the House’, the shimmering tears in Marius’ eyes (Eddie Redmayne) as his voice deftly wavers through ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.

Leaving the theatre, I was without tears, though I had steeled myself for a most lachrymose cinematic experience. Yes, I had been moved by the film’s musical majesty, but more by the score and its visceral occularity than by its star-powered vocal performances. I came away with the feeling that poverty was abhorrent, that revolution was for youthful idealists, and that absolute morality was quite evil. I had just succumbed to Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation of stage musical by Alain Boublil’s and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 musical interpretation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables and I had my initial doubts. Yet what the recurrence of the Les Mis phenomenon suggests above all is, finding yourself humming along to the finale at unexpected moments in the days or weeks or months that follow your initial viewing, just how infectious the revolutionary spirit redressing society’s wrongs can be.

Laura Ludtke is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.