In defence, mostly, of ‘Les Miserables’

I am not sure whether Steve Kates is simply being curmudgeonly in his review of the film of the musical Les Miserables, or really does believe it to be “a two hour and 40 minute indulgence in the worst kind of socialist idiocies.” If the latter, he is wrong.

The film has several faults. Chief among them is Russell Crowe, who employs a single facial expression throughout; surly. He does surly very well, but one expression is not enough to cover the complicated character of Inspector Javert, who struggled with the same questions as Valjean but chose differently. Also, Crowe can’t sing, or certainly not well enough to convey convincingly the drama of Javert’s righteous conviction, or at the end, his inner struggle.

Hugh Jackman, by way of contrast, employs three facial expressions; happy, sad and troubled. Troubled also covers angry. Three expressions in a single movie prove that he is an actor of great depth, so it is likely he will win a Golden Globe in 2013, or perhaps some other plastic statue.

The real surprise was Anne Hathaway, whom I have always dismissed as an airhead. Her depiction of Fantine creates some genuinely moving moments in a film otherwise painted in lavish strokes of mere sentimentality.

The greatest disappointment, however, is the concluding scene, after Valjean has died. It is a long time since I read the book, but my memory is that Valjean dies peacefully, content at last, and that is the end.

In the musical, Fantine, in one of the most sob-inducing moments in movie history, comes to accompany him on his last journey to heaven. But then we see him and her and the revolutionaries all back on the barricades, as if the fight is still continuing. What for? This is marked contrast to the words they are all singing:

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Being back on the barricades completely undoes the gentle triumph of Valjean’s death. I can hardly think of a more pig-headedly stupid decision in the history of movie-making.

Steve Kates objects to the unlikeliness of Bishop Myriel’s kindness to Valjean. But many of the most interesting novels are the stories of ordinary people in unlikely circumstances. And anyway, it is not that unlikely. Despite the depredations of the popular media, most Catholic clergy are and have always been compassionate, just and faithful.

Valejan was sentenced to death for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son. His sentence was commuted to life and he was eventually paroled. He has spent the years of his sentence feeding his bitterness and anger to the point that they have almost consumed him. In the light of Myriel’s extraordinary generosity, Valjean is forced to consider what he has become. It is a conversion experience, and a deep one, though it takes some time for the light of his response to Myriel’s kindness to fill out into every corner of Valjean’s character. He still makes some bad choices.

One such bad choice is handing over to the foreman of his factory the handling of a dispute involving one of his workers, Fantine. When she refuses to sleep with the foreman, he fires her. Fantine calls out to Valjean, whom she knows to be a just man, but he is pre-occupied and ignores her. She falls into a life of debauched and horrifying misery as she tries to earn the money she needs to feed her daughter, Cosette.

Kates says Valjean’s attention to Fantine and Cosette is a mystery that is never explained. Not so. Valjean is generous in general, but the reason he chooses to focus on Fantine and Cosette is that he feels a personal responsibility for their plight.

Victor Hugo clearly feels a deep pity for the poor, Les Miserables. But this does not blind him to their faults. In both novel and musical the poor are portrayed as indolent, feckless and frequently vicious. It is not that they can’t do anything for themselves, but that they won’t. They demand that someone else should fix their problems. By contrast, Valjean is able to help, to make real changes, because he works hard and takes responsibility.

Dr Kates complains that the revolutionaries are portrayed in in “all their romantic stupidity.” Exactly. They are sympathetic but stupid, in some ways admirable, but clearly wrong. They end up dead. Nothing changes as a result of their plotting. Novel and musical are both clear that you cannot make the poor better off by destroying the rich.

Marius and Cosette are only able to find happiness together because he comes from a wealthy family. Valjean is able to do the good he does with the capital provided by Bishop Myriel’s silver because he works hard and invests wisely.

The key theme of Hugo’s book, and of the musical, is the redemptive power of love. Redemptive love is practical, giving and forgiving. The creative power of this costly, hard-working love is contrasted at various points with the empty pointlessness of sentimentality, and with the destructiveness of lust, greed, and revolutionary fervour.

Neither novel nor musical ever suggest that things would be different, better, if only the right people were in charge. Rather, both portray personal responsibility, honesty, and effort as the ways to escape poverty and build a more just society.

The movie Les Miserables has faults a-plently. But being a socialist manifesto is not one of them.

Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman who now runs an IT consultancy business on Kangaroo Island in South Australia

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