Do you hear the people sing?
This year, on my birthday—as is my habit when I find myself again living the freelancer’s life—I went to see a film; this time, the recent film of Les Miserables, the film so intensely pronounced at this year’s Golden Globes. I try to see the Oscar-nominated films, if I can stomach them, at least via BitTorrent, but on the big screen if I suspect it will be worth it. It was worth it in this case.
I don’t know why I didn’t think about how much this musical had meant to me at a certain tender age in my early teens when, I vaguely recall, a school group, probably the Thespians, made a trip to Des Moines to see the traveling production. I know I later bought the soundtrack and have always remembered certain phrases or moments. If I had thought about it, I might have been less surprised by the tidal wave of nostalgia that knocked me back from moment one of Tom Hooper’s film, and bore me ferociously along, ass over teakettle, helpless, heart pounding, eyes stinging, for at least the first hour.
I knew every word of the songs, it turned out, and Hooper’s extraordinary choice to shoot handheld, shallow depth-of-field single takes during the most intimate singing was almost too much for me. The power of this approach and the gut-wrenching performances of Jackman and Hathaway shrunk the bathos until it could be drowned in a tub, if you will, leaving nothing but raw, real, throbbing emotion. The cynical can easily dismiss Les Miz for many reasons; this production defies that instinct. This musical is arguably the greatest example of the much-beloved, much-maligned medium and I can’t imagine it receiving a better film adaptation.
The story is not as intense in all its phases. While the first hour is heartbreaking, as Valjean’s backstory and Fantine’s martyrdom play out and the miserable poor scrape to live, the tone changes with the appearance of the buffoonish Thénardiers and again as we leap forward into the teenage-love-story section, pre-barricades. The triangle of Marius, Cosette and Eponine holds less interest for me now than I suspect it did at 14, but, plotwise, it allows for a catching of breath before the romantic, doomed, June Rebellion of 1832 unfolds.
Throughout, it’s remarkable how many of the songs are successful—few musicals can boast one great song after another, for nearly the entire length—though, of course, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is the most well-loved and, thematically, the song that lingers most over the play and film. Hathaway seems a lock for the Oscar—I mean, look at it: beautiful star has luscious hair cut off on screen, while playing a desperate character who is forced into prostitution to provide for her baby, then dies of consumption or something, after rage-and-cry-singing, live, the biggest showstopper in the film in an unbroken close-up. Hathaway is a remarkable figure, in that, to me, she seems among the most actor-y of A-listers (read: irritatingly earnest plus nakedly calculating—literally naked in some cases) yet she remains oddly lovable in her eagerness to please and charm, whether it’s put on or not. She’s also extraordinarily talented, though, among her peers I find her Brokeback Mountain counterpart, Michelle Williams the more interesting actor. But spunky Hathaway persists, like the Iowa girl straight off the bus (that she’s not), and we root for her in spite of our cynicism.
She is a perfect choice for a musical writ as large and pitched as broadly as this one. Not only can she nail the singing (and I prefer the imperfections of the live-sung approach to the canned a thousandfold), but her look and persona is ideal. Les Miserables is awash in sentiment and emotion. Those who hate musicals will always tell you that they find ridiculous the notion of characters suddenly breaking into song, but I suspect this is not the real problem. After all, there is much that is ridiculous about all of our popular culture, low, middle and high, that will scarcely be mentioned. No, I think the real problem is that musical-haters are simply embarrassed of emotion, so broadly and nakedly expressed. Hathaway in general, and Les Miz in particular, are nothing if not calligraphed in rococo curlicues across big, flowing sleeves.
What ultimately moved me so much about the film—in its reintroducing me to a story and a telling I had forgotten I remembered and in spite of my dim, hipsterish stirrings of embarrassment—was that huge, belted-out, defiant emotion. A proudly middlebrow artwork, pitched, so appropriately, to the masses, through which everyone can glimpse the absolute truth of the absolute suffering of the daily life of the planet, of all humanity through all history, of its horrors and hopes, of barricades political and personal, and be moved to tears at the stinking, tragic, glorious mess of it all. These truths are what we close our eyes to every day. But if it’s 1830s Paris, if it’s beautiful and if they sing their guts out, we will come.