“Bob Dylan is the greatest opera singer in the world.” Ascribed to Andy Warhol
Les Mis is one of the most beloved stage musicals in history, a well-nigh perfect example of middle-brow middle-class, popular entertainment. Conventionally pious, and therefore appealing to mainstream Christian audiences. Melodramatic: good guys/bad guys, with a sweet romance. Sad moments and funny moments. Lots of good tunes to hum afterwards. It’s what it is, a really really good musical.
I’ve seen it three times in good professional productions; the national touring show in Indiana back in the late ’80s, the London production in 2000, a very good production at Tuacahn in Southern Utah about five years ago. I own the cast recording, know most of the music by heart. I could maybe barely sing Javert, the only part I’d even remotely be right for, if I were still acting, which I’m not. So now, there’s a movie out, with movie stars. So you look at it a bit cynically; it’s a paycheck movie. More cash in Cameron McIntosh’s pocket. At the very least, you figure that it’s going to be . . . a good movie based on a great musical.
It’s not. It’s way better than that, way more interesting. It’s a political movie, a deeply engaged leftist excoriation of contemporary conservative commonplaces, especially the politics of poverty and criminal justice, which it sees as inevitably linked. It’s a savage denunciation of laissez-faire economics, of the economic component of libertarianism. It’s a deeply tragic examination of the inevitable failure of political engagement, while urging us never ever to give up on engaging ourselves politically. It takes Victor Hugo’s own radical politics and gives them a 21st century gloss. And yes, it’s a Christian film, with a deeply engaged Christian hero, but it’s also a film that shows the limitations of private charity.
I have friends who love musical theatre, actors and directors and dancers who have performed in musicals all their lives, and based on the trailers for the film and the clips the producers released on Youtube, they’ve expressed concern about the singing, questioned if these fine movie actors would be up to the vocal challenges posed by Les Mis. In my opinion, the singing in the film isn’t very good. What it is is wonderful. And especially that’s true of Russell Crowe as Javert, who almost dominates the film in one of the finest performances of his career.
The film opens with Jean Valjean’s release from prison, finishing a sentence of nineteen years hard labor–and we see just what nineteenth century hard labor looked like–for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister. Now, we all know that’s the premise of Les Mis; Jean Valjean, brutalized by the harsh inhumanity of a ferociously merciless criminal justice system, who then is redeemed by a priest who teaches him, by example, the virtues of forgiveness and charity and atonement. But film is an intimate medium, a personal medium. Hugh Jackman shows us Valjean’s savagery, how his treatment by the courts have made him barely human. His subsequent repentance and redemption are also conveyed through close-up, through songs he can barely choke out, he’s so overcome with emotion. Are they beautifully sung? No. Are they powerfully sung? Yes! Director Tom Hooper’s approach, which was to have the actors sing live, accompanied by a piano, placing an acting performance, and not a vocal performance, at the center of each musical number, pays off from the moment the film begins.
And never better than in the subsequent scenes with Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Fantine works for Valjean, now a successful businessman, in what appears to be the nineteenth century garment industry. It’s a sewing factory, a small step above a sweatshop–Valjean apparently provides workers a uniform–and it’s even possible that the women who work for him are well paid, by the standards of that period and that industry. But Fantine is sexually harassed by her supervisor, and fired, a situation Valjean does not seem to care enough about to investigate. Desperate to provide for her daughter, Fantine sells her hair, her teeth, her body. When she sings “I dreamed a dream,” ravaged and brutalized, she’s half dead.
Hathaway is brilliant in those short scenes, heart-breaking. Her singing–well, she couldn’t give that performance in a 3000 seat West End theater. She couldn’t sing that way eight performances a week. She doesn’t have to. It’s a movie, and it’s all done in close-up, and it’s revelatory. And because it’s so powerful, we’re hammered in the face by the politics of it. She’s an impoverished nineteenth century woman and she has no recourse. No social safety net, no possibility of escape from utter degradation.
When Valjean finds her, he’s horrified by his role in her death, and promises to take care of her daughter. And the film doesn’t particularly highlight his complicity in her tragedy. But he feels it, and we feel it through Jackman’s performance. Jean Valjean is a Christian capitalist and Christian politician (mayor of this town, as he says), but his fortune is built on underpaid and desperate workers, and as mayor, he has done nothing to alleviate poverty. Successful businessmen/politicians didn’t, back then. Libertarianism suggests that they shouldn’t do much today, either.
We see one other business enterprise in the film–the inn kept by the Thenardiers, where Fantine’s daughter Cosette is being raised. Again, the performances are wonderful–Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter are savagely funny as the utterly rapacious Thenardiers. I’ll grant that “Master of the House” is a pretty standard bit of music hall comedy. But M. Thenardier is . . . a small businessmen, is he not? An entrepreneur? A job creator, really.
In other words, we see two business enterprises in the movie–Valjean’s factory and the Thenardier inn. Both contribute to the misery of the world, and both contribute to Fantine’s death. (Fantine turns to prostitution because she’s received a letter saying her daughter desperately needs medical attention–a Thenardier scam).
Moving on to Paris, Valjean hotly pursued by the grim and unforgiving Javert. Javert obviously represents one branch of Christianity–Justice completely untempered by anything resembling mercy, a brutal moral code turned into the statutes and codes of a terrible jurisprudence. And this is where Crowe’s performance becomes extraordinary. When he commits a minor offense, and Mayor Valjean forgives him, he seems completely baffled, utterly at sea. Later, he sings “Stars” while standing on the edge of a precipice; he sees justice in almost Platonic terms. To him, Justice is a thing, as real as natural laws, as the stars in the sky. To forgive is almost a physical impossibility.
Can Russell Crowe sing? Not well. He couldn’t do eight performances a night on Broadway. He can carry a tune, and his voice is actually sort of pleasing, but he’s not an accomplished singer. On-stage, this would be a problem.
But in a musical, characters must appear to sing because they’re so overcome by emotion they can’t convey it in any other way. And that’s where Crowe excels. In a film, in close-up, singing feels like the one way this emotionally wound-up man can really express himself, the only release he’s able to allow himself. He’s brilliant. Javert is anyway one of the most complex and interesting villains in musical theatre history. Russell Crowe creates a superb character, a courageous and honorable man who simply has no room in his world-view for anything like charity or kindness.
When we get to Paris, and meet the poverty-stricken denizens of Saint-Michel, that notorious slum, our introduction comes care of Gavroche, a cheeky ten year old orphan who has been adopted by the young student revolutionaries led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Gavroche is played by a terrific child actor named Daniel Huttlestone. I don’t know that Gavroche actually has been expanded by Hooper from the musical, but he feels more central–he’s the kid who serves the role Fantine served in the first third of the film–the visual representation of hard-core poverty. Later, when the students’ revolution collapses in violence, Gavroche is killed (the second time I cried in the film, by the way, the first being when Fantine died). Inspector Javert looks over the battlefield, sees Gavroche’s body. Crowe takes a medal from his own jacket, and pins it on Gavroche; an extraordinary highlight of a remarkable performance.
So what do we do? Faced with poverty and fear and deprivation, what do we do? We see Jean Valjean’s response–he goes to the slum and hands out coins. Well-meaning, well-intentioned, very much the act of a good Christian. Private charity, personal kindness, and may I add how difficult it is to pull off what Hugh Jackman does in this film–create a compelling and powerful character who is, without reservation, a good person.
But it’s ineffectual. It accomplishes essentially nothing. Jean Valjean, for all his goodness and hard work, saves exactly one person–his foster daughter, Cosette, rescued from the Thenardiers, and raised as a well-bred rich girl. So what’s the alternative?
Well, one alternative is revolution, and that works out even more badly. A group of idealistic young students raising up barricades in Paris in 1832–it’s not hard to see why the authorities would react badly. After all, there would still have been Frenchmen alive who would have remembered the events of 1789-93, when the idealistic students included Marat and Robespierre and Saint-Just and things didn’t work out all that well.
The revolution of Enjolras and Combeferre and Feuilly and Marius and the rest of them seems foolish, heart-breakingly idealistic and optimistic and utterly doomed. As Hooper stages it, they don’t really know what they’re doing–they improvise, hoping The People will rise and drive the royal authorities out of power, or something. (And as the students build their barricade, the People seem mostly pissed–that’s their hard-purchased furniture tossed onto the pile). Tveit is superb as Enjolras, and of course the guys get the two best songs in the show–“Red and Black” and “Do you hear the people sing?” But that doesn’t mean their revolution is the answer anymore than Valjean’s private efforts are, or for that matter, Javert’s brutal oppression.
And yet, and yet. . . At the end of the film, Jean Valjean dies, embraced by Cosette and Marius. Fantine comes for him, well, his soul, takes his hand, leads him down a corridor. And at the end of it; the barricade, only much bigger, huge, and Enjolras is there, and Gavroche, and all the student revolutionaries, but all of Paris is there, and they all start singing, and Valjean joins then; “Can you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!” That song is usually treated as an encore–the curtain call song, on-stage. Not in the movie. It’s integral, it’s the final scene in the film, it’s what the film means. “When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there’s a life about to start when tomorrow comes.”
It’s a call to arms. It’s a call to reject, sorry, but conservatism. It’s a call for a new kind of governing paradigm. It’s a rejection of laissez-faire, a rejection of the historically disproved notion that private charity can alone alleviate poverty and despair. It’s urging the 21st century to take a long hard look at the 19th century, when the industrial revolution created unprecedented wealth, but did it by grinding in the faces of the poor.
You may notice that I’ve said nothing about Marius and Cosette, and the love story that makes up much of the last half of the film. This is because I’m an unfeeling monster, incapable of romance or genuine human emotion. Honestly, I think Cosette’s a terrific character when she’s a little girl, and insipid when grown. Plus Amanda Seyfried actually doesn’t sing all that well, though I rather like her blend with Eddie Redmayne, who is very good as Marius. But their love triangle includes Eponine in the role of hypotenuse, and Samantha Barks is quite brilliant in that terrific role.
But I came away from the film blown away by the raw political power of it. I wanted to, I don’t know, go vote for Obama again or something. I think the critical reaction to it has focused on issues I don’t care about. Like, how good is the singing? As sheer singing goes, it’s nothing special. But it’s a film, with great film actors giving great film performances, performances in which they sing because they have to, because their souls require it. I thought it was brilliant. I don’t care if it also managed to be good.