‘When Music Gives Hope to Misery’: Scrutinizing Les Miserables (2012)

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The film’s theatrical poster features Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette.

It never came anymore as a bit of a shock. Her Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role accolade in the recently concluded Academy Awards was utterly justified. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal was superbly done and critically acclaimed. Hers is that brand of Fantine which transcends even to the mightiest of the souls. Though she was a bit young to be cast as a dismal, struggling mother in the much celebrated film adaptation of Les Miserables, she gave it her best shot and made all the way through.

Needless to say, the film was a talk-of-the-town for some weeks. Under Tom Hooper’s thorough direction, Les Miserables starred an ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne, among others. Les Mis, as it is colloquially called, was a well-praised stage musical by Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg way back on 1985.  The musical celebrated its 25th Anniversary last October 2010 through a concert where our very own Lea Salonga chosen to portray Eponine, a young woman struck in love with one Marius Pontmercy.

The screenplay was written by Boublil, Schonberg, William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer. After the main characters were cast, principal photography of the film followed a year after. Scenes were shot in some parts of England and France. It first premiered in London on 5 December 2012, in the United States on Christmas Day, in Australia after Christmas and in the Philippines on 16 January 2013. The film ran for roughly two hours and 40 minutes.

SYNOPSIS

Les Miserables is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title published on 1862. It narrates a sprawling story of passion, love, sacrifice and human survival during a period wreaked by political turmoil and social unrest in the 19th-century France. Jean Valjean, known as Prisoner 24601, is released from parole after serving a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. When he left the town because of his paroled status, he meets Monsiuer Charles Myriel, the bishop of Digne whose compassionate treatment causes reformation to Valjean. He (Valjean) vows to start an all new life and breaks his parole. Javert, an unforgiving police officer, swears to hunt the escaped convict until the justice is duly served.

After eight years, Valjean becomes a factory owner and mayor of a small French town. Fantine, a young mother who works at Valjean’s factory, is discovered to send money to her illegitimate child, Cosette. With much disdain, the foreman sends Fantine out of the factory. Now ill-fated, Fantine decides to be a prostitute in order to support her daughter. After attacking a rude man, Fantine is arrested by Javert but is later rescued by Valjean himself. At deathbed, the ailing and weak Fantine is assured by Valjean that he will take care of her daughter. In order to fulfill his promise, Valjean goes to the Thernadiers’ house where Fantine is forced to leave her daughter into. He pays the Thenardiers a generous amount and takes young Cosette with her.

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Valjean’s (Jackman) rescue to Fantine (Hathaway)

Nine years later, it is announced that Jean Maximilien Lamarque, the only government official who sympathizes with the poor, died. This is days before idealistic students Marius Pontmercy and Enjolras along with little Gavroche discuss revolution. While the students confer, Marius catches a glimpse of Cosette, now a blossoming, young lady. Instantaneously, Marius fell in love with her. Eponine, the only daughter of the Thenardiers, is asked by Marius regarding the whereabouts of the girl she had just seen. Eponine is secretly in love with Marius but as his friend, she brings him to the Valjean residence where Cosette lives. In that moment, Marius and Cosette profess their love with each other. Disillusioned and hopeless, Eponine decides to join the revolution.

As planned by the students, the funeral procession of Lamarque marks the commencement of rebellion. Enjolras emboldens his fellow Parisians to revolt and make a stand but to no avail. The students then decide to fight until death. In an assault, Eponine dies but saves Marius’ life. The young Gavroche is shot dead by a French soldier. Eventually, all students died save for Marius who was salvaged by Valjean.

With Marius at his shoulders, Valjean manages to find an exit out the sewers but is caught by Javert. Javert threatens to shoot Valjean if the latter refuses to surrender. Valjean  ignored him and walked towards the alley. Seeing himself an utter failure, Javert jumps off the river Seine.

Later, Marius laments for the death of his colleagues. He is comforted by Cosette who will soon be his wife. Valjean gives Marius his blessing to marry Cosette but tells him that he (Valjean) is leaving because his presence might endanger Cosette. Also, he orders Marius not to tell it to her.

Marius and Cosette marry. The Thenardiers, still crooked, crash the wedding. From them, Marius discovers that it is Valjean who saved his life. The couple goes with haste to the convent where they found Valjean sitting and dying in solitude. As Valjean perceives the spirit of Fantine appearing to take him to heaven, Marius and Cosette rush in to bid farewell. While holding Cosette’s hands and confessing to her his past life, Valjean unites surreally with Fantine, along with the students who died at the barricade.

ROLE OF THE MUSIC

Les Mis is a musical film. Needless to say, the role of the music in the film is so crucial. The songs serve as the monologues and dialogues of the characters. The emotional content of the piece is channeled through songs as words are communicated through melodies. Every song entails a story and every story mirrors a character. The music, therefore, is the heart of a musical film.

As much as songs are essential, the way the song is sung constitutes to the success, if not failure, of a musical film. If songs were sung with shallowness and superficiality, no matter how brilliant they may be, a musical film will not totally achieve its purpose – that is to make the audience feel about and empathize on the character. On the contrary, if songs were sung with deep emotion and splendor, a musical film will not be just a film. It will be an expression of beauty and art. It will, eventually, breed a new brand of life in the minds and hearts of the audience.

More importantly, the songs should follow a coherent flow. That is to say, it should be organized and arranged in a way that they are interwoven to one another. Songs should not just aesthetically please but should also walk the audience all throughout the entirety of the musical. Songs should not make them cumbersome about what is going on the scene. Songs should guide them, not confuse. The audience should realize that songs are telling the story right on their ears, not serving as mere intermissions to entertain them. Songs are there to make their watching and listening experience worthwhile, not antagonizing.

Les Mis does not fail to fulfill the said requirements. Judging by the aesthetics, I can say that the songs are sung with passion and brilliance. The alluring vocals of the actors and actresses, along with their outstanding thespian skills, spell success to the film. The songs are a gem of a work, a result of ingenious craftsmanship. The songs embody the souls of each character portrayed, not to mention that they are painstakingly written.

A notable example would be the opening song “Look Down” sung by strong armed prisoners, submerged in knee-deep seawater, heaving an enormous ship into shore. One of these prisoners is Valjean. The swelling chorus echoes intensity of emotion as the song itself narrates the ordeal of the convicts as sentenced laborers. More so, how the song was sung instinctively sends a message to the listeners: “We’re damned. We’re hopeless. We’ll forever be here, tormented and accursed.”

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Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is a tear-jerker.

Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is also noteworthy. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of this song is met with praise and moves many viewers as she sings Fantine’s anguish out. The theme of the song is distress and grief wrought by fighting against life’s imperfections and trials. How the song was sung is exceptional as it communicates unfathomable agony of a young tormented soul. Anne’s vocals, coupled with her adept acting performance, make this particular scene in the film a showstopper.

THEMES

There are numerous issues which the film wants to articulate. As each character has his/her unique story, a number of themes appear relevant. After all, there is a reason why “Les Miserables” is entitled as such.

Poverty, Social Hierarchy and Social Injustice

An evident theme all throughout the movie is poverty. Most of the scenes are set in slums and the poorer sections of 19th-century France. Some musical numbers in the film have beggars, prisoners and workers as singers. Shabbily-dressed people roam around as passers-by, if not the main characters, in the film. The film effectively portrays the typical life of the French lower class during a period when rebellions will soon be instigated.

A related theme to poverty is social inequalities. As seen in the film, there is a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, the upper class and the lower class, the gendarmes (police officers) and the prisoners, the factory owner and the workers, and much more. Valjean himself is a victim of inequalities. He stole a loaf of bread from a local baker in order to feed his sister’s children during a time of economic depression. By a stroke of bad luck, he is caught by a gendarme and sentenced for five-year imprisonment. However, he tries to escape four times, and each time his sentence is lengthened for three years. Amidst the economic meltdown, the French aristocracy enjoys lavish lifestyle and grandiose living. With such scenario, the borderline dividing the “haves” and “have-nots” is conspicuous. As always, the “have-nots” fall into grave misfortunes in order to cling for survival while the “haves” blame the poor for being a plague to the society. In a society dominated by the noble class, the poor is perceived as a drop of crimson in a purely white French drapery woven by the rich. While Valjean is spending his forever in prison cells, the “haves” are raising their glasses high and drinking their wines as if tomorrow would not come anymore.

Fantine is herself a victim of inequalities. Accused of immorality, she is wrongfully terminated from her work in the factory. As a struggling mother, she has to have a job in order to support her young daughter. Sad thing is, she just lost hers. With a mother’s enthralling love to her daughter, she sells her hair, teeth, and anything that she can sell even her soul to earn a decent amount of money. She has undergone exploitation from being a prostitute which cost her life dearly. All those years of pains are buried along with her body underneath the grave.

Clearly, the film criticizes the social class system in France. The society favors the aristocracy while frowns upon impoverished people. The social structure transforms people’s innocence to felony as they struggle to cling on the grasp of life. The criminal justice, educational and law enforcement systems add to the repression all the more. In the film, it is emphasized how Valjean earned the label of a notorious criminal by stealing a loaf of bread. Fantine is shoved off her workplace not because of any work misdemeanor but because of the society’s hypocrisy and misjudgment. If viewed in a broader perspective, Fantine is driven to utter misery and, later, killed by a cruel society who ostracizes the deprived and underprivileged.

With these stories as cases in point, it is seen that social inequalities and injustices ushered much suffering, frustration and isolation to all the characters in the film.

Revolts and Uprisings

The film used 19th-century France as a backdrop so much likely, rebellions and revolutions as a principal theme is inevitable. With the emergence of characters such as Marius, Enjolras, Gavroche and eventually, Eponine, the theme of revolution is embodied successfully in the film.

Putting one’s foot in the grave is foreseeable if one wants to subvert an oppressive, established order. This idea is materialized when the students, headed by Marius and Enjolras, chose to depart from their comfort zones and instead led the initiative to fight for the oppressed and marginalized. The same students are killed by the soldiers without achieving anything.

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Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), alongside the students, lead the revolt which commenced during Lamarque’s funeral procession (Picture taken from http://www.mirror.co.uk)

The revolution is envisioned with a thrill of hope in the earlier part of the film but with a handful of desolation in the film’s latter part. Since the revolution lacked the ingredients of solidarity and collective action, the revolution is doomed to fail. Despite its futility, however, the revolution is never viewed as an act of notoriety but an act of heroism. This is because the film pays significance to the preeminent role of rebellions and insurrections in a socially unstable France where a rigid class system dichotomizes the rich and otherwise. A proof of this is the film’s concluding scene which pictures the participants of the rebellion singing fervently during the June Rebellion of France.
 
Misery versus Compassion

The film’s plot revolved around misery, suffering, frustration and isolation as exemplified by the abovementioned assertions. However, the misery is contrasted by love and compassion of some of the characters.

The film puts an emphasis to a wide spectrum of love, ranging from loving oneself to loving God and others. Monsieur Myriel becomes a manifold witness to the transformation of Valjean from being an escaped convict to an esteemed philanthropist. This shows that love and forgiveness find their way through persons who are willing to change and improve themselves for the better. Though Valjean encounters problems when helping people in need, he does not err to help so long as he can, for this gives him fulfillment he has never felt before. He will later show his brand of compassion to Fantine and her daughter Cosette. Cosette will later impart this compassion to Marius and reach fulfillment through her marriage to him.

Unrequited love is also witnessed in the film. Eponine is deeply in love with his friend Marius. However, this love is not openly reciprocated for Marius falls in love with another girl. Her love to Marius is difficult yet real. When Marius inquired on the whereabouts of Cosette, Eponine answers it with all honesty and leads him through Cosette’s place without hesitation. Though painful, Eponine thinks of Marius’ happiness more than hers. This love reaches its peak when Cosette was shot by a French soldier in the barricade. Falling into Marius’ arms, he professes her love to him but sadly, it is too late. To bring the drama to a close, Eponine gives Marius the note written by Cosette and dies afterwards. Indeed, the unrequited love epitomized by Eponine is not self centered. It is outward, generous and heroic.

REACTIONS

Les Mis is a masterpiece at best, a stunning gem of a work. After his “The King’s Speech”, Tom Hooper did a magnificent work once again. With an excellent ensemble cast, impressive production, beautiful costumes and a compelling storyline, there are no contentions whatsoever on Les Mis being chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 Films of 2012.

Production

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The costumes reflect each character’s personality. For instance, the Thenardiers’ (Helena Bonham Cater and Sacha Baron Cohen) bizarre choice of fashion shows joviality and cheerfulness, traits which define these characters.

Remaking 19th-century France is certainly a handful but Les Mis achieved it with much success. The styling of each piece in the set is not overdone and exaggerated. The costumes are appropriately made for the scenes as each costume fits to the personality of every character. For instance, the Thenardiers’ bizarre choice of clothing matches their joviality. The beggars’ scruffy dresses are complemented by their lifelessness. Valjean’s costume reflects his transformation from a dejected prisoner to a well esteemed person. The students who initiated the revolt have something color red in their costumes (e.g. shirt, scarf, accessory) as this symbolizes fervor and courage. All the characters, even the passers-by, wear costumes resembling the ones worn during the Napoleonic times.

The set is intricately constructed. The places where scenes took place are consistent to historical facts. The Elephant of Bastille, a colossal monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846, is seen in some parts of the film; namely during Gavroche’s first appearance (for the statue is shelter to Gavroche) and Lamarque’s funeral procession. As for the architecture, Parisian buildings are reconstructed and embellished with lavish details such as paired columns, magnificent statues and splendid facades. The film effectively illustrates the two faces of Paris: one, a glamorous city where tall, imposing buildings stand and two, a gloomy city where the exploited and downtrodden thrive. Hairstyling and makeup are also meticulously done. For such efforts, Les Mis was nominated for Best Production Design, Best Costume and Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 85th Academy Awards

Performance

It is interesting to note that every actor sang their songs in predominantly live vocals on set. Not a song is dubbed beforehand – solos and choruses alike. It is for this reason that I admired the movie more so.

Anne Hathaway’s performance as the tragic Fantine is notable. Her rendition of the classic “I Dreamed a Dream” is a tear-jerker as it broke hearts and made everyone felt sorry about her doleful condition. Anne is a marvelous actress herself. She does the performance enveloped in despair but clothed with grace and elegance. She does not overact; her singing is just right and appropriate for that particular scene. She is impressive.

Hugh Jackman’s performance as the hard willed yet sensible Valjean should never be set aside. With a thunderous vibrato, he sings his lungs out in what has to be his grandest performance yet. A Tony awardee himself, Hugh pulls off the role with ease and sophistication. His performance is not the type which may be easily forgotten. He is a good actor as much as he is a marvelous operatic singer.

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Marius (Redmayne) and Eponine (Samantha Barks) in their last hours at the barricade

Eddie Redmayne, as Marius, is a breath of fresh air. His performance is as equally stunning as Hugh’s. Vocals are not a problem for Eddie as he has been a stage musical actor for almost three years. Samantha Barks, who plays the role of Eponine, is as soulful and loving as her character. Eddie and she are like two puzzle pieces which effortlessly fit together. Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, is as enchanting and captivating as her rendition of the songs. Aaron Tveit’s performance as Enjolras is equally remarkable. The same is true with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who played Mrs and Mr Thenardier, respectively. With a nice dash of humor, Helena and Sacha’s portrayal of a slatternly and dreaded couple is effectively achieved. The performance of Daniel Huttlestone, the child actor who portrays the juvenile yet critical Gavroche, is admirable. Isabelle Allen, who plays the young Cosette, has serene voice which will make everyone cry their hearts out. Her rendition of “Castle on a Cloud” is one of my favorites.

With such spine-tinkling portrayals and renditions, Russell Crowe seems to be the black sheep in the ensemble cast. He tends to shout rather than to sing his lines. His awkward singing draws a sharp contrast to his muscular built. His facial expressions do not seem to fit on what the scene asks for. To add insult to injury, his portrayal of the persistent Javert does not make a cut to me. His stiff and reserved gestures tell the audience that he is self-conscious and unconfident to what he is doing on set. His performance is not as exceptional as I expect. Nevertheless, the scene when Javert commits suicide is remarkably done.

Songs which I Like

The film is famous not only for its portrayals but also for its soundtrack. Comprising 52 musical numbers, Les Mis boasts of its songs which were written and sung with ingenious musicality.

Eponine’s “On My Own” is an all-time favorite. I become acquainted with this song back when I was in high school. We did a class presentation of Les Mis at school (where I was cast as one of the Chain Gang members) and heard of this song a couple of times. The song was rendered by Lea Salonga during the 25th Anniversary Concert of the musical which, by the way, was concluded with a five-minute deafening applause. Since then, I liked the song so much and it found a place somewhere inside my memory.

Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is also one of my favorites. The lyrics of the song are excruciating as it narrates the ordeal of a tragic woman. The melody appeals to my auditory nerves even though it is sort of melancholic. Anne’s rendition of this song leaves me almost crying.

The song “Do You Hear the People Sing”, sang by Enjolras, the students and beggars, is an “ear candy”. The song expresses feelings of valor and heroism during a time of depression and despotism. The chorus’ roaring voices reflect the characters’ boldness and bravery. The message of the song is as clear as crystal: “We do not want to be enslaved again!”

Marius’ “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” is delicately soothing to the ears. Eddie sings this song with ineffable sadness. Grieving for the death of his friends, Marius expresses his loss through this wonderfully written song.

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Valjean, together with the Chain Gang, as seen heaving a huge ship. Their thunderous voices speak of pessimism and hopelessness.

Lastly, the Chain Gang’s “Look Down” is noteworthy at best. The vocal power of this chorus, coupled with the restless physicality of the workers and the momentous heaving of a gargantuan ship, pulls off an opening scene which will rouse some slumbering heads. The rendition is heart-stopping as thunderous voices blend in unison to convey feelings of impatience, hopelessness and pessimism.

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Those who are not used to watching musical films can find sweet repose to Les Mis. Beyond doubt, the film is superlatively awesome. It is exquisitely done – from the development of the set to the release of the film’s trailer. The film is surely worth one’s time as it a grand spectacle to one’s eyes and ears.

4 thoughts on “‘When Music Gives Hope to Misery’: Scrutinizing Les Miserables (2012)

  1. Good review. I think any true film and music lover will see a spark of greatness in this movie, and if not, to each their own I guess. As for me, I think this film will be remembered as a phenomenal musical and a brilliant film.

  2. Pingback: Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me What your sacrifice was for (LES MISÉRABLES) | The Foreign Reviews

  3. Pingback: Finding a Life, From Wildly Different Places. Or Maybe Not. | The Therapy Journals of the Fat-Headed Klingon Woman

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