Russell Crowe as Javert and, below, Amanda Seyfried in Les Misérables
Published: 10 January, 2013
by DAN CARRIER
Directed by Tom Hooper
Rating: 4 Out Of 5 Stars
THE effect Victor Hugo’s novel had on 19th-century France cannot be underestimated: it isn’t too grand a claim to say it altered the political landscape, and did for France’s collective consciences what Dickens did for Victorian Britain.
But apart from its social message, it is a wonderful novel that charms with its passion, has scores of Hugo-esque digressions, and contains images that are accepted as pinnacles of the Romantic movement.
It was put on the stage in 1978 and has now found its way onto screen.
In this film version, Valjean, prisoner 24601 (Hugh Jackman) does a 20-year stretch for stealing a loaf of bread. He is kept in chains under the beady eye of officer Javert (Russell Crowe). On his release he is turned from further crime by the kindness of Bishop Myreil (Colm Wilkinson) but goes on to break his parole conditions – prompting Javert to try and track him down.
Years later, Valjean (Amanda Seyfried) has become a successful Mayor – until he is spotted by Javert. We then rattle through a story that includes orphaned girl Cosette, who Valjean takes responsibility for, the Parisian proletariat ripe for revolt, a love story between the now older Cosette and revolutionary student Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
Tom Hooper directs with great fanfare and 19th-century Paris is gorgeous. Being a musical, Hooper gets away with everything being over-egged. You could pick holes in some of the singing – Crowe has other strengths – but it’s never bad enough to be off-putting.
Mention must be made of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter for their roles as the grotesque Punch and Judy-style crooked inn keeper and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier.
Despite being great fun, there’s a problem with this adaptation, and it’s one that rings true for the stage version. Hugo’s baddie Javert is portrayed as a man with a sole mission and a vendetta, as if his motivation comes from his own character.
But Hugo wanted him to be as much of a victim as Valjean: he was the individual representation of the corruption of Napoleon III’s regime. To make Javier the baddie, the brutal tool of a brutal regime, makes a single officer a boo-hiss character and not the system that he is a pawn of.
This is a fundamental aspect of the story, and by ignoring this, the effect the publication of Les Miserables had is tempered. In France, the second empire of Napoleon III, who had sent Hugo into exile in Guernsey where he wrote the tome, was one of complete panic. The Emperor was forced into acts of charity. It made philanthropy fashionable.
Interest rose in some of the topics he highlighted – prisons, crime and punishment, women’s rights, education and the care of the young.
The book set the political agenda. It had an effect on English readers, though with a hilarious marketing. The first cheap English translation included a message inside the front cover that said: “What higher aim can man attain than conquest over human pain? Don’t be without a bottle of Eno’s Fruit Salt.”
The biography of Hugo by Graham Robb says of the book: “Hugo had produced the most lucid, humane, and entertaining moral diagnosis of modern society ever written... 135 years after the novel appeared, he was as close to being right as any writer a can be... readers should be advised immediately to put down this book and go and read Les Miserables.”
The same could be said of the film: when the credits roll, read his novel. This sing-song rendition is a whimsical take on a story whose power is immense.