So, for… I guess, Grognards, this year ends on sort of a high note:
“Les Miserables”, brings the Napoleonic age to the big screen, or, well, at least 19th century France – the movie, based on the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, which in turn is based on the novel by Victor Hugo.
Critically acclaimed, and likely a favorite in next year’s award season, the movie tells the story of Jean Valjean, his adopted daughter Cossette, and their nemesis Javert in song and shiny, overstylized pictures, universally hailed as the newest extravaganza since 2001’s Moulin Rouge.
And that’s where I am not sure if I should be angry with the public, the movie director, the critics, or the people who wrote the musical in the first place, or if it is really that I am misreading the book in some fundamental manner:
Let’s see – Les Miserables, “The Miserable Ones”, is an overly sentimental, yet stinging portrait of the poverty and desperation that the people of France suffer in the years of the Bourbon Restoration up to the July Revolution of 1830. Perhaps the story lends itself to an epic treatment, with the larger-than-life characters, and the side romance, but it’s not Disney material. (For that matter, The Hunchback of Notre Dame really wasn’t, either.)
More than that, we are living in a time when social injustice on an everyday basis is becoming a issue in First World countries again. And, no, I don’t have to be one of the Occupy kids to duly register that development.
And that’s why I cannot but frown at the new movie, because the topics that drive the story of Les Miserables are incredibly relevant for us today. They deserve to be discussed in a way more serious fashion than this new dramatization does, even when it is at its best.
See, I am not necessarily a political person; but I am a Spaniard. Poverty, legislative tyranny, and social unrest are things that I witness every day. Crap like this offends me, because, when I think of beaten and abused women, of street fights between young idealists and a brutal police force, of people having to spend the winter on the streets and experiencing hunger, I don’t have to think of the 19th century, and to think of a Broadway musical. I simply turn on the TV to watch the news, and it kills me every time.
So, in sum, little surprise I favor a way less fancy approach to a book like Les Miserables, and, while I think the musical is pretty sweet per se, I would have loved to see a movie production that was more aware of its own times. Granted, the production’s goal was to bring the musical to the cinemas, but even so; this is a story of darkness and desperation, and of, however much you struggle, you always end up abandoned, and on the bottom. Why people are trying to cheapen it this way, turning it into a flashy sentimental drama, it quite simply escapes me.
– Rather than the new movie, I am tempted to recommend an older dramatization, produced in 1998, directed by Bille August, and starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and, brilliant, but limited through bad lines, Geoffrey Rush. That movie, while really a fairly free interpretation of the original novel, at least manages to point the viewer what I understand to be the core of the story – how miserable the lifes and times of all the people in the story really are.
For what it’s worth, here is one of the core moments of the movie from the 1998 version; I for my part think it really stands out as an example for the good acting you find everywhere in August’s otherwise fairly convoluted script: