How ‘Les Misérables’ soars past cynicism

Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne in Les Misérables.

Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne in Les Misérables.

Les Misérables works. Not the way musicals by Minnelli, Demy, Fosse, Kelly, Berkeley or Lubitsch worked—by demonstrating elegance, sophistication and eroticism—but through a kind of amazing brute emotional strength. The world-famous stage musical composed by French theatrical hands Claude-Michel Schonberg and librettist Alain Boulil stays true to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about social cruelty and human perseverance.

Schonberg and Boulil’s 1980 adaptation (translated to English and produced by Cameron Mackintosh in 1985) includes many of Hugo’s undeniable, irresistible narrated examples of suffering, justice, love and fate, and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) presses those points. He maintains the universality of Les Misérables. The title means “The Miserable” or “The Wretched Poor,” which, in its compelling, unsubtle way, is aligned with Dickens’ great social critiques. The long tale covers years as ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), arrested for stealing bread, helps a ruined factory girl Fantine (Anne Hathaway), then her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who falls in love with politically engaged aristocrat Maurius (Eddie Redmayne). Valjean learns the ways of the world while unjustly hounded by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).

Like the globally beloved stage productions, the film preserves Hugo’s worldview as an epic of French rationalism, the philosophy that, hipster critics fantasize, is in movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Amour and the moronic Argo—but rationalism is not traduced as in those films. With music, Les Misérables sings out the misery of urban inequality and deep human striving as if to lift those realities and make our common consciousness soar. Nothing could be less ironic or “smart,” but that’s what makes audiences inevitably weep by the time Hugo’s tale reaches its apogee.

It’s not that they’ve experienced the highest form of art—only art’s basic, often forgotten and essential purpose: Les Misérables’ yearning melodies and rising, rising recitative connect with primal emotional virtues. That is, if—and it’s a major IF—they touch our basic humanity. Most movies, TV shows, video games and blog sites have coarsened the human response. Les Misérables is fascinating due to its overstated tribute to mankind’s nature.

If this movie is the huge hit it deserves to be, it will contravene the bogus sophistication and vain smugness that have overtaken the pop arts for at least the past two decades and soured millennial film culture.

Les Misérables works despite its aesthetic problems. Hooper’s opening shipyard scene is gargantuan: hundreds of men pulling a vessel into dock. It first suggests the overscaled stupidity of Peter Jackson, but actually alludes to Raymond Bernard’s 1934 French film version, with its colossal opening image of Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) assuming the granite-like capacity of a sculpture that is the foundation of an artistically minded yet exploitative state. Hooper’s hallucinatory maritime symbol is perfect for a British production, but he then shifts into nightmarish English misery via the nearly unwatchable sequence of Fantine’s decline—one of Western lit’s key demonstrations of man’s inhumanity, made repellent by Hooper’s unfathomable habit of mismatched edits: extreme close-ups, unbalanced compositions and spatial gaps.

Hooper plods, yet the story’s slog is paced by singing performances that win you over. Schonberg and Boulil don’t cinch feelings with perfect song-structure (as Andrew Lloyd Webber can), but the actors, by singing live and full-out, achieve emotional completeness. Seyfried gives Cosette a sweet and clear voice, stronger than her Mamma Mia singing. Redmayne embodies Maurius’ courageous belief in loyalty, and his passionate youthful tenor makes you believe in justice. It’s a heroic performance—while Crowe’s Javert conveys heroic despair; his account of coming from poverty and knowing its kind makes an effectively tragic foil to Valjean, despite Hooper staging his final song showily. By Jackman’s finale–his intense Rembrandtian visage accumulates real force–the film stays powerfully true to Hugo’s prologue: “So long as ignorance and poverty exist on Earth…Les Miserables cannot fail.”

Also check out the 1996 updated Les Misérables. Director Claude Lelouch’s masterfully controlled narrative flow with memorable characterizations by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Annie Giradot, yet Hooper’s blunt faux opera is as moving as real opera. To deny this is to prefer the culture’s sarcasm and nihilism.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair.