CINEMA: News Weekly
Powerful tale of redemption and grace
, March 2, 2013
The new film version of Les Misérables (rated M) is reviewed by Siobhan Reeves.
Many great works of art have been set against the backdrop of the 1789 French Revolution. It inspires in equal measure horror and awe. It is described in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables (1862), as “the most important step of the human race since the advent of Christ”, a time which presented humanity in its daring, terror and majesty.
When I was 12 years old, I read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The famous lines, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”, made a lasting impression on me. These words, uttered by Sydney Carton as he approached the guillotine in place of another, illustrate the beautiful virtue of self-sacrifice.
Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, more explicitly identifies the example of self-sacrifice with that of Christ, and the recently released musical/film adaptation of the story, directed by Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech), remains faithful to Hugo’s vision.
Les Misérables was first adapted as a musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg in Paris in 1980. However, the production closed after only three months.
In 1985 it was first performed in London, adapted into English by Herbert Kretzmer and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. To date the musical has been seen by over 60 million people and is the second longest-running musical in the world (after Phantom of the Opera).
In 1998 a film adaptation of the novel was released, starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, but its plot differed in many key aspects from that of the novel. This new film adaptation of the musical, which is more faithful to the book, has been eagerly anticipated.
Les Misérables begins in 1815 in rural France and concludes shortly after the Paris Uprising of 1832. It concerns the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose life is transformed by an encounter with the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original London musical and on Broadway).
Valjean is pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who is religiously devoted to both the law and his duty to uphold it. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is unjustly fired from her position at Valjean’s factory; but after her death Valjean takes responsibility for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/ Amanda Seyfried).
Later in the film, the young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette, and Eponine (Samantha Barks) who herself is in love with Marius, are two of the most memorable performances in the film, aside from Jackman and Hathaway. The film has already won three Golden Globes and four BAFTA awards, and been nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Visually, the film is arresting. The set design for Paris was based on the work of the French photographer Charles Marville (1813-1879), who photographed many of the suburbs of Paris before they were demolished — an action which Hugo laments in his novel.
There are many poignant but subtle touches, such as the coffin which makes up part of the doomed barricade. The set is all the more impressive when it is recalled that everything had to be soundproofed to allow for the live singing. For example, the rosary beads in the factory had to be remade from rubber.
The music is powerful and stirring. Singing live gives an emotional power to the lyrics which makes up for any technical deficiency.
The greatness of this film, however, lies in its depiction of redemption and grace. Hugo himself described the novel as detailing the march “from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God”.
Audiences expect Hollywood to play down or erase entirely Christian themes from contemporary films. However, it is arguable that Hooper accentuates the Christian, even Catholic, underpinnings of the story even more so than does the novel itself.
As previously mentioned, Valjean’s factory in the film makes rosary beads: in the novel it produces gems. Crucifixes and altars abound more so than in the novel and are frequently the focal point of a new scene. The Christian themes of mercy, grace, redemption and abiding love are openly evoked in song and deed. God is an omnipresent invisible character.
This film emphasises, among other things, themes of social injustice, youthful idealism, legal oppression and sexual slavery — themes which remain relevant today (as Hugo foresaw) and which the actors and filmmakers have repeatedly drawn attention to.
It is hard to ignore, however, the reoccurring presence of the crucifix. It is a constant reminder that in Les Misérables we find represented in microcosm that supreme act of love and self-sacrifice which redeemed the whole of humanity.
At the outset of the film the Bishop consecrates ex-convict Valjean’s soul to God “by the Passion and the blood”, and throughout we see the workings of grace in Vajean and those around him. Hugh Jackman stated that Jean Valjean’s “spiritual change… (is) one of the most beautiful journeys ever written”.
To have that journey faithfully transcribed in music and film is a rare and sublime moment in cinema.
Siobhan Reeves, a graduate of Sydney’s Campion College, is undertaking a masters degree in international relations at the University of Melbourne. She is currently in Timor-Leste, assisting at Klibur Domin, the clinic established by Ryder-Cheshire Australia in 2000.