Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beyond the barricade, is there a world you want to see?












This is a first class film. We were surprised to come out of the cinema and find out it had been three hours since we went in. The momentum of the film never stops and there are some fantastic performances by Hugh Jackman as the convict, Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as the sacked factory worker, Fantine and Russell Crowe as police officer, Javert, . The comic talents of Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen provide a counterpoint to the serious side of the story.

“Les miserables” (powerful words inadequately translated as “the poor”) are the focus of the original story. It is not a narrative Hollywood was likely to like. Tom Hooper concentrates on the romance at the expense of the social message. Nevertheless they have not succeeded in emasculating the story.

The story, based on a two-volume 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo, is not miserable at all because it contains within it a message of hope that things can be changed.

It is worth comparing the revolutionaries in Les Miserables with those other revolutionaries in a 19th Century novel – the bloodstained monsters depicted in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Although the revolution of 1830 was defeated, Victor Hugo sees the revolutionaries as human beings and evokes sympathy for the cause for which they are fighting.

To say it is a revolutionary film would be pushing it. It is a film about revolution and about the appalling injustices of society but the message is about individual salvation through love.

The central character, Jean Valjean, is imprisoned for five years for stealing a loaf of bread, then another 14 for trying to escape (not an exaggeration of the penal code of the period). On release he is condemned to carry a yellow passport – an ID card which is as effective as a brand. Even outside the prison he is not free.

A priest  seeks to redeem him with an act of kindness and (without retelling the whole story) the narrative rests on the consequences of that act of kindness.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the original story is the casting of a policeman, a perfectly respectable upholder of the law with no sympathy for the poor, as a villain. We are accustomed to seeing “crooked cops” but Javert isn’t crooked; he is as straight as he can be according to his lights. He simply enforces an unjust law because it is not his place to change it.

The most powerful scenes involve the street fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution and the idealism of students and young people who are depicted as simply and selflessly fighting for the poor of their own city.

“Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!”

Without the music the words give you some idea of the emotions stirred by the powerful song. I am aware that people talk cynically about “not a dry eye in the house” but it really is an accurate description of how people in the audience respond to this.

In the final scene the selflessness is rewarded when, with Les Miserables, they ascend to heaven. Dickens, for all his compassion, would have had them going to the other place!

The same songs are repeated with a different emphasis at different times in the film but the message of what happens when society offers no future to the poorest members of the community could not be clearer. We really will all be in it together!

“At the end of the day there's another day dawning
And the sun in the morning is waiting to rise
Like the waves crash on the sand
Like a storm that'll break any second
There's a hunger in the land
There's a reckoning still to be reckoned and
There's gonna be hell to pay
At the end of the day!” 

Derek McMillan
January 2013


hen provide a counterpoint to the serious side of the story.

“Les miserables” (powerful words inadequately translated as “the poor”) are the focus of the original story. It is not a narrative Hollywood was likely to like. Hollywood concentrates on the romance at the expense of the social message. Nevertheless they have not succeeded in emasculating the story.

The story, based on a two-volume 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo, is not miserable at all because it contains within it a message of hope that things can be changed.

It is worth comparing the revolutionaries in Les Miserables with those other revolutionaries in a 19th Century novel – the bloodstained monsters depicted in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Although the revolution of 1830 was defeated, Victor Hugo sees the revolutionaries as human beings and evokes sympathy for the cause for which they are fighting.

To say it is a revolutionary film would be pushing it. It is a film about revolution and about the appalling injustices of society but the message is about individual salvation through love.

The central character, Jean Valjean, is imprisoned for five years for stealing a loaf of bread, then another 14 for trying to escape (not an exaggeration of the penal code of the period). On release he is condemned to carry a yellow passport – an ID card which is as effective as a brand – even outside the prison he is not free.

A priest who takes the message of Christianity seriously seeks to redeem him with an act of kindness and (without retelling the whole story) the narrative rests on the consequences of that act of kindness.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the original story is the casting of a policeman, a perfectly respectable upholder of the law with no sympathy for the poor, as a villain. We are accustomed to seeing “crooked cops” but Javert isn’t crooked; he is as straight as he can be according to his lights. He simply enforces an unjust law because it is not his place to change it.

The most powerful scenes involve the street fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution and the idealism of students and young people who are depicted as simply and selflessly fighting for the poor of their own city.

“Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!”

Without the music the words give you some idea of the emotions stirred by the powerful song. I am aware that people talk cynically about “not a dry eye in the house” but it really is an accurate description of how people in the audience respond to this.

In the final scene the selflessness is rewarded when with Les Miserables they ascend to heaven. Dickens, for all his compassion, would have had them going to the other place!


“At the end of the day there's another day dawning
And the sun in the morning is waiting to rise
Like the waves crash on the sand
Like a storm that'll break any second
There's a hunger in the land
There's a reckoning still to be reckoned and
There's gonna be hell to pay
At the end of the day!” 

Derek McMillan
January 2013

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