Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Magic of Les Misérables

I first saw the stage production of Les Misérables when I was a drama student in London. I cried from start to finish. I recently saw the movie version. I cried from start to finish. What is it about this powerful book, written in 1862—meaning it’s 151 years old—that continues to inspire and move people? It is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The story begins in 1815 and culminates in 1832, and follows the life of convict Jean Valjean (based on a real person) in his journey from humiliation to final redemption. It’s not just about one man, however; it’s about a society in transition, politics, justice, philosophy, freedom, religion, and self-belief. It is sweeping in the greatness of the themes embraced by author Victor Hugo.
Movie poster
The story line and themes are so strong that it has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and remains as popular as ever. But why? I think, personally, that the passion, pain, anguish, and ultimately victory expressed by the characters resonate even now. In addition, the film techniques and inspired directing has made this recent production drive completely into the hearts of viewers. Of course, not everyone liked the movie. I have read reviews where the writers said they couldn’t wait to sneak out. It’s all about taste. Most critics complained about the singing.

Ah, the singing. I have the CD and have played it so many times that even I hit those high notes in my head. Again, it’s not about the singing; it’s about actors portraying a powerful and passionate story. They just happen to be singing! From the moment the opening scene sweeps the viewer into an epic of monumental proportions, one is lost in the story. From the visual splendour of a giant vessel being towed into dry dock, to the close-up of a filthy, weeping, cropped Anne Hathaway, it is hard not to succumb to what the performers do so well: tell a story. And that’s what writers aim to do: tell a story that moves the reader/audience. Life is about stories—people’s personal tales, and society’s grand epics.

Cosette by Emile Bayard - original 1862 edition
Half the story plays out against the scenario of the June revolution in France, with barricaded streets forming a backdrop of increasing violence and tension that affects the lives of smaller people in this great game of life. Hugh Jackman holds the story together magnificently with a powerful, magnetic performance. He is Jean Valjean with every fibre of his being. Contained, repressed, angry and driven, Russell Crowe (for me) epitomizes the man doing his job, if it kills him, in Javert. His voice was passable, but again (although I could hear the soundtrack soaring in my head), the visuals surrounding him—horses galloping along the beach; streets of Paris seen from the building tops: a fatal plunge to his death—all serve to add to the dimension of Valjean’s alter ego. Anne Hathaway is a beautiful, talented actress, and her interpretation of Fantine puts her into the ‘serious actress’ division. Her performance is exquisite.
Like it or love it, but see it without any expectations of soaring operatic voices. See it for what it is—an incredible story, performed with passion  by talented actors, who pour their hearts and souls into every minute.
by Fiona Ingram
(Images courtesy of Wikipedia: see links)

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