I have been waiting months for December 25, 2012 to arrive. No, not because it was Christmas and I couldn't wait for Santa, but because it was the release of Les Misérables! It has been out for four days now, and I have already seen it twice. Of course, I plan to go at least one more time. And yes, I know. I'm ridiculously obsessed. I just accept that fact about myself, and so should you.
Critics have panned it as being too long, too big, and too over the top. Forgive my blunt delivery here, but they are morons who have clearly never seen the stage version of Les Mis, and/or who clearly do not understand the history and period behind the story. Regarding the too long, I must point out that Victor Hugo's novel upon which the musical is based is over 1,200 pages. Tolkein's The Hobbit is about 275 pages, yet the movie runs 10 minutes longer than Les Mis - and that is just the first of the pending trilogy! There is nothing that could be removed from the film version of Les Mis without damaging the integrity of the story. And what a story...
|Author of Les Misérables - Victor Hugo|
I love Les Mis, not simply because it is French (although that scores it some serious bonus points in my book!) but because it is a story of redemption and the power of mercy, love, and forgiveness all wrapped up in rich history that few know about. As the story progresses, we see the main character, Jean Valjean's, evolution over the years. But what happens in France over the years? I have had several people ask me about the historical chronology of the film, so here it is in a nutshell:
The story begins in 1815 after Napoleon's fall at Waterloo with prisoner 24601, better known as Jean Valjean, being released from prison. He has spent nearly 20 years working off his sentence in slave-like conditions in a labor prison. His crime? Stealing a crust of bread to save his sister's son. When the tale begins, he is released under the watchful eye of his nemesis, Inspector Javert (who likes to refer to himself in the first person, which is kind of silly, but apparently a lot rhymes with Javert, so I suppose it works out lyrically speaking!)
|Louis XVIII of France (r. 1815-1824)|
After Napoleon I, France restored the Bourbon monarchy, popularly know as "The Bourbon Restoration," with the new king being Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI and equally as inept. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic Codes had abolished the ancien régime, birthright and the societal orders (The Three Estates) and fought to establish “Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité.” The Napoleonic Empire upheld many revolutionary values, but Louis XVIII, a member of the ancien régime, did not. By the 1830 July Revolution, which is referenced in the movie and particularly during the finale (you can see the monument with the inscription “Juillet 1830” towering behind the barricade at the Place de la Bastille and its elephant (the elephant, to my utter disappointment, no longer exists)), another monarch, Charles X, also of the House of Bourbon and brother of Louis XVI and XVIII, was deposed.
|Charles X of France (r. 1824-1830)|
I must also note one more thing about the July Revolution of 1830. Many people erroneously attribute Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty Leading the People, to the French Revolution of 1789. It is actually of the July Revolution of 1830. The man in the top hat is not, as many of my students inquire, Abraham Lincoln, but actually the artist himself. Even though Delacroix did not participate in the revolution, he apparently fancied himself a revolutionary nonetheless and painted himself in the heat of battle! There is, in fact, a huge Les Mis connection to this painting as the young boy to the right of Lady Liberty (a real street urchin who lived in the leg of said aforementioned elephant) was the inspiration for Hugo’s character, Gavroche.
|Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830)|
The French then invited Louis Philippe (House of Orléans – he supported the 1789 Revolution, and later he was known as “the Citizen King”) to be their king under a constitutional monarchy (known as the July Monarchy) because he was “one of them.” By 1832, his monarchy was showing signs of corruption and the chasm between the bourgeoisie and poor had greatly deepened. All that was fought for during the Revolution of 1789 seemed lost. This, combined with the harsh winter, food shortage, and wave of cholera that was sweeping France, left people angry and seeking change in 1832. This is the when the climax of the musical/film takes place.
|Louis Philippe of France (r. 1830-1848)|
The movie (and book) mentions Genéral Lemarque, a real general under Napoleon Bonaparte, and the man who led the July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew the Bourbons, and the champion of the poor. When he succumbed to cholera in June 1832, his death served as the catalyst for the June Rebellion of 1832, just as it did in the movie.
|Genéral Jean Maximilien Lamarque|
In general, the June Rebellion (June 5-7, 1832) was a failure. It lacked popular support…not so much in theory, but in action. People were happy to complain about social, political, and economic inequality, but were not yet ready to act. Despite the rapid “construction” of the barricades (which the movie does a historically fantastic job of portraying!) and the unbridled enthusiasm of the revolutionary Republicans (all 3,000 of them), they were no match for the King’s troops who were better trained, outnumbered the Republicans 10:1, and better equipped. Action by the people will not occur until 1848 when Louis Philippe is overthrown and the Second Republic is instituted. (But not to worry…that won’t last long. The Second Napoleonic Empire will oust the Second Republic, then the Third Republic will overthrow Napoleon III. Oh, and we cannot forget the revolution of 1871 known as the Paris Commune. The Third Republic will go on permanent hiatus in 1941 when the Nazis occupy France and a puppet government in Vichy will rule. But they will have revolutionaries of their own to contend with – a little group known as the French Resistance. The Nazis/Vichy are the next to be relieved from their positions and in 1946 the Fourth Republic will take over. But that will barely last ten years because in 1958, the Fifth Republic will take, and thankfully maintain, control.)
|The June Rebellion of 1832 - at the Barricades|
Hugh Jackman's performance as Valjean is nothing short of amazing (if he does not get an Oscar for this, I will personally start a riot à la Paris 1832!) It is his transformation from down-trodden criminal to upstanding, merciful man that is the heart of the story. It is his encounter with the Bishop who shows him mercy and offers him a second chance and what he does with that second chance that reveal Valjean's true character and make him one of literature's greatest men. And on a side note, the movie's scene with the Bishop gave me the chills because the Bishop of Digne is played by Colm Wilkinson - the original Jean Valjean! The symbolism in the passing of the candlesticks from Wilkinson to Jackman was not lost on me...
I found the film more emotionally moving, and thereby more satisfying, than the stage production. I have always wept pretty much straight through from the barricades to the finale in the stage version, but I full out bawled during the movie (I was literally stifling sobs during the finale – no lie). For example, I have always felt sincere compassion and pity for Fantine, but never cried during I Dreamed a Dream…not so in the movie. Anne Hathaway’s rendition moved me to tears. And I think it is because the film was better able to depict the poverty, suffering, and destitution in a way that simply cannot be conveyed on the stage…and therein lay the true beauty of the film.
Director Tom Hooper gives us a gift by offering to us a glimpse inside what life was really like in early 19th Century Paris, complete with homeless children, prostitution, disease, starvation, and crime....all contrasted by extreme wealth and excess. The harsh reality of poverty and, dare I say, raw emotion of the characters on stage gets "Broadwayed" out by the necessity of big voices and overdramatized movements. But not in the film. The hideous bumps and rashes, the blackened, rotting teeth, the poor hygiene and disgusting filth on the streets are appallingly accurate, uncomfortable, and inescapable in the film. The attention to detail is truly one of the film's best qualities as it offers to the audience an intimacy that is just not possible on stage. And so, if lifelike, in your face accuracy is what the critics mean by "too over the top" then they are out of their minds and really don't get it. Monsieur Hugo called it Les Misérables for a reason, folks!