Les Misérables was the name of the 1862 Victor Hugo French historical novel, and has since been adapted to numerous mediums, from plays and radio to film. Its latest iteration as a 2 hour and 38 minute long film is at once both an achievement in terms of depicting the human spirit in raw emotional form, but also a fairly over the top, one dimensional exercise in manipulating human emotion along a linear path.
The most obvious method director Tom Hooper employs to grab audience attention is the reliance on zooming on the actors' faces to achieve emotional impact. Every facial nuance is clear and unabashed, and the actors have the freedom to achieve emotional effect in incredibly subtle ways.
This is where the cast shines. For example, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway are accomplished actors and it is immediately evident in their impressive and masterful performances that Director Tom Hooper intentionally shot the film in this way to allow complete audience access into the film. This allows the audience to bond on a deep, emotional level with the actors as they experience anguish, hope, redemption, and joy.
The now world famous musical score of Les Misérables lends itself to the excellent performances by providing a moving and powerful musical backdrop. It supplements the film with its sweeping orchestral and choral score and gives impetus to the performances. It makes moments of anguish all the more painful and moments of joy more uplifting. Indeed, the fact that I have personally witnessed audiences cry, laugh, and cheer along with the actors is a testament to the expert performances and wonderful music score supplementing them.
This is ultimately the gist of Les Misérables. At its core as a film, its primary purpose is to achieve emotional impact, to draw the audience in and immerse them in the lives of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, and Cosette, and to show the power of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable conditions. The human spirit can triumph even in extreme adversity, and redemption and grace are key themes to human resurgence. Without grace and redemption, struggle is for naught, as evidenced by Inspector Javert's incapability of accepting grace. This is an excellent message. The story of redemption and grace and hope is ubiquitous across time and culture, I would argue, and resonates within us still for a good reason.
However, the way in which Les Misérables goes about conveying this message is ultimately a flawed one that ironically contradicts its own message. The film leaves little room for interpretation, and its clear, black and white morality is rarely questioned throughout the film. It shows us the power of the human spirit, but it does not go deeper. It is ultimately a very linear exercise in intentionally manipulating audience emotions through quite frankly, tired cinematic tropes (think of the over the top death scenes at the balcony during the barricades scene).
For example, although the use of close ups throughout the film affords the audience an unfettered view of their emotion, it does become exhausting after a while. I trust Tom Hooper's direction, but at the same time, it is difficult to shake the feeling that it was pure laziness to only rely on close ups to achieve emotion; it also might just be poor character blocking and positioning when nearly every shot is a face or tonsils. It feels as though the film forces the audience to accept its good, but very obvious and one dimensional message in a way that literally shouts at you to look upon the tears and weep with it. It is difficult to care for characters that only endlessly sing and weep about their troubles for 2 and a half hours. Or maybe I'm hopelessly desensitised.
In any case, this is where the conveyance of the message contradicts the message itself. The message of human perseverance through grace is one that is deeply complex and even mysterious. But in Les Misérables, it is manifested only in crying and singing. We can see virtually nothing apart from the characters and similarly we are given very little context and character development. As an audience we are completely removed from engaging the film on an analytical, thoughtful level. The only connection we have as an audience to the film is through emotion. And for a message as complex and deep as human redemption, that is not enough. Emotion is important yes, but it is an extremely simplistic world that this message exists in (in Les Misérables), painted only in broad strokes of black and white.
It is fitting then that the film ends in a glorious explosion of song and music and heart moving triumph, but completely overlooks the fact that the happy couple (Cossette and Marius) are married in utter opulence and kick out the very people they were supporting and fighting for just a few scenes ago. They betray their very ideals for a clichéd happy ending the same way the film dishonours its complex message by telling it in a simplistic, emotion ridden way. Les Misérables is a marvellous showcase of music and song, and its message is a good one, but its substance is ultimately reduced to simplistic terms of black and white morality.
But don't just take my word for it. I realise that the position I hold is a controversial one and is sure to anger many, especially those who believe that a direct, scene-for-scene transplantation of the play into the film media is an excellent one in which audience accessibility is emphasised.
So take the time to talk about it, and regardless of how you feel about the film, be sure to think about why exactly you feel the way you do. One opinion on its own is virtually useless, but when a group of people come together with different ideas and opinions, than a discussion can happen, and that is far better than any single opinion by a jumped up, amateur critic. After all, maybe films are ultimately for audience enjoyment, and maybe seeing emotion and suffering and anguish in an honest, stark light can reveal more truth to us than wrapping emotion in layers of nuance that can often desensitise us and turn powerful emotion into an academic exercise.
Some questions to ponder:
1. Is it important for a film to take an approach that emphasises nuance and flexibility in audience interpretation? Or is it better for a film to present itself in a more straightforward way?
2. Should a film be judged as its own entity or should it be compared and judged based on previous iterations in different mediums? Should Les Misérables the film be judged by itself or should it be judged in comparison to the play or the novel?
3. What does this film say about wealth, poverty and social inequalities? How does it reflect the political climate of its setting? How might the film speak into our own times?
4. New York Times columnist Stanley Fish argues that Les Misérables the film removes the critical distance from the audience to the characters, thus showing the characters in a very honest light, which annoys critics but creates audience appeal. Do you think the characters are shown in an honest light or are they one-dimensional? How does the film as a direct representation of the play version impact this?
- Miki Phua