There but For the Grace…
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Great literature, superb filmmaking and a thoroughly heart rending immersion into one of civilization’s greatest moral conundrums converge in director Tom Hooper’s rendition of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” Starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the heroic poor soul who went to jail for stealing a crust of life-sustaining bread, it is a tour de force.
Great principals and a fine supporting cast tell a bittersweet tale, with an accent on the bitter, in a musical form that resonates with operatic force. With the pageant of history swirling, the poor people of France still trying to realize true revolution, and the rich folks still winning, Jackman’s protagonist quickly gains our full sympathy and concern.
After breaking parole, Jean is pursued by Javert, Russell Crowe’s unremittingly close-minded policeman. Examined in a fiercely worked rumination on blind law vs. morality, theirs is a struggle between the dipoles of light and darkness. A Confucian judge might have weighed the circumstances and taken pity. After all, his sister’s son was starving.
But no such luck. Even though he’s served his seventeen years of hard labor, the state in the person of Javert remains insistent on collecting its long overpaid debt. Valjean runs, hides, and ultimately steals to preserve life and limb. Then, a glimpse of redemption presents itself thanks to a kindly priest. If only Javert would relent…if only. Fat chance!
Yet it comes to pass, with a new identity in a new life that can’t be lived without looking over one’s shoulder, that Valjean becomes a well-to-do factory owner. And as irony would have it, in that factory yet another perpetration of life-altering injustice is inflicted, this time to a pretty young mother who fends off a cruel foreman’s unwanted advances.
Anne Hathaway is very special as Fantine, the damsel in question. Beautifully tragedizing one melancholic song in particular, she gains Valjean’s attention. Seeking his own grace from whatever charity he might be able to impart, it may be too late. But aha, there is a twist in the form of her little girl, Cosette, boarded at a rather questionable inn.
Now, regardless of whether you were absent the week Mrs. Cummings taught the novel or just forgot the story, that’s all the plot you’ll learn here. Simply suffice it to note that director Hooper tells it with notable aplomb, making sure to knowledgeably weave the personal tale into the greater tableau of French history, circa early and mid 19th Century.
Aficionados of the musical, doubtlessly possessing a better ear for this form of movie entertainment than I, might exit the theater humming a tune or two. But most of us would think that weird. This is very depressing stuff. In fact, oftentimes it’s due only to the universal positive truths exampled that some portions of the saga are at all bearable.
Director Hooper builds an artistic monument to the ever-waging war between man’s inhumanity to man and the great, charitable instinct constantly challenging it. Over the course of history, the graph marking this roller coaster ride through the good and bad of human behavior changes with the whims of time. And Valjean is caught at the nexus.
His fate epitomizes the eternal argument, and through his travail we recognize the legal, political and socioeconomic conflicts confronting our own times. Indeed, Valjean broke the law. But there are those who fear that any understanding shown the impoverished will corrupt the system. Strict constructionists believe such blind adherence is the best charity.
Which might explain why half the people in America really aren’t sure if they want to help the other half. Both are as certain as Javert that they are right. And the more they rationalize their position, the more the word right metamorphoses into righteous. Alas, just as in Valjean’s era, we can’t figure how to harness that disparity for the greater good.
So you’d think that putting the distressing shame to music and wrapping it in lavishly colorful settings, even if a lot of it is dabbed in Poverty brown and gray, would be sheer madness. Yet this searing fable smartly harkens to one of the original purposes of art: to elucidate, poetically and visually, what is otherwise too difficult to understand or endure.
Thus, calling on perennial hope, that other ace in the hole we Homo sapiens have used to good advantage in our fight for survival, we sidle up close to the exquisitely realized proscenium where Monsieur Valjean et al pursue their struggle. And there we root for the good guy, wishfully believing that a happy ending will speak well for our species.
Now, while I highly recommend this film, it must be iterated that this isn’t a musical in the generally accepted sense of the term. It’s hardly “My Fair Lady” (1964) or “Singing in The Rain” (1952). While technically in the same genre as those two, this is their darkly solemn cousin. Appreciate that and you’ll be happy you chose “Les Misérables.”
“Les Misérables,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Tom Hooper and stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. Running time: 157 minutes