Saturday, March 2, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

As with a book, when you love a play (i.e. Phantom), the thought of the movie adaptation can seem daunting, if not downright insulting. Fortunately, although I've seen countless productions of Les Miserables, I've never loved any of them. I've never seen the old Les Mis movies. Haven't even considered reading the book, so I only know it from the theater. There, save for Master of the House, I found none of the tunes engaging. The big showstopper, I Dreamed a Dream, lacked contrasting numbers that would make it less cloying; the costumes were drab and the humor offered by the Thenardiers charmed, but did not balance well with the rest of the story. Consequently, as I sat down to view Tom Hooper's film, I felt that my opinion of Victor Hugo's tome had absolutely nothing to lose. What I didn't expect was the much deeper character experience it would bring me.

On the big screen the characters are 20 feet high. You're looking into their eyes, where the emotion is forefront, not obscured by costumes and sets. While the movie starts with widescreen crowd angles, to bring home the sheer number of prisoners oppressed and, later, the necessity and scope of the revolution to end the suffering, we don't get a show of Busby Berkeley pageantry, shot from overhead. Instead, we get very personal views of Jean Valjeans scars, broken body and spirit. Since I couldn't carry a tune if it had handles, I wasn't bothered by anyone's singing and lack thereof. Therefore, no barrier distracted me from Hugo's world. From the movie's first minutes I was lost in Valjean's battle to rein in his rage against the taunting Javert and the world that gave him such undeserved and unbridled power over his fellow men. Valjean's incredible physical strength is what causes Javert to target him. After the lifetime in prison, he still has not been broken. As old and weak as he looks, he can still lift many times his own weight. Javert orders him to lift the french flag, on its heavy wooden staff alone and derives satisfaction when Valjean strains under the burden. Still Valjean succees. Indeed, his brawn after years of bondage is almost miraculous and the fact that they could take Valjean's liberty, but not his spirit rankles Javert. Makes him think that Valjean has not been punished enough or that he, Javert, is lacking in his ability to do so. Even if Jean only has physical strength left, the fact that he hasn't been stripped of everything indicates failure on Javert's, end, an authority greater than his and his government's that still recognizes Valjean as somehow their equal. That's a judgment Javert cannot accept. Any rise of Valjean's lowers Javert. And it's not a mere case of male rivalry. It's moral rivalry. In Javert's mind, there can be no justice on both sides. If Valjean is only slightly right, then everything Javert has ever believed in is completely wrong. Faith in his own course in life is challenged by every step Valjean can still take unbroken.

I'm not sure if aspects of the story meant more to me because of the script and direction or because the world seems to have changed so much, since I last considered the plot. Certainly, the movie centers more on the social injustice and inequality than on the romances that dominated the more frivolous renditions of this tale. Is that because it's influenced by the world we live in today, where the widening class divide calls for a revolt more urgently than it has in the last 50 years? There aren't people dying in the streets and working for slave wages in most of America, but today, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. the wealth and power commanded by the top 1% (who receive 20% of the nation's income and pay an effective tax rate of 23%) is putting a stranglehold on the masses' ability to survive, in a way that sadly resembles the 19th-century France depicted here.

What's also striking is Javert's self-righteousness. I fought back the urge to call him ruthless, because, although he is, thst term implies a lack of discipline or morals. It is in fact Javert's "morals" that make him so cruel. He prizes right, his right, above humanity. Actually, it's not a question of prioritizing. Humanity and compassion have no part in his life: only honor and pride matter and he thinks God will judge him by the number of stripes he possesses, just as the army does. How much less maddening (and complex) Javert would be, if he were only evil. But he's not a hypocrite using religious as an excuse for his cold, brutality. He truly believes it makes him superior. He's actually a better villain because the hero doesn't vanquish Javert in the end. He controls his own death, using the same standards by which he persecuted so many others to mete out his own punishment.

Moving to Valjean's standards, we watch him regain them. After decades in prison for the crime of trying to feed his starving young nephew, he is angry at the world, the God, who deserted him. If his captors, so much lesser men than the ones they enchained, could commit so much continued wrong with impunity, then there could be no right. Finally freed, he tries to find an honest job, but no one will hire a convict. Even after 19 years in prison, Valjean is still on probation and is supposed to check in regularly with local authorities. This makes him a target, so he tears up the conviction papers he is supposed to keep on him at all times and, basically, becomes a wanted man. He served his time, but in the public's eyes, his sentence should never end and, as if the rich and powerful weren't heartless enough, the downtrodden too are eager to victimize anyone who has less than they. Instead of being brothers in despair, they relieve their own helplessness by subverting anyone weaker. The abused become the abusers. This reality has numbed Valjean and he's become inside the skeleton he looks to be on the outside. He finds unexpected charity at a search and being fed and clothed by the priest. Rather than being overcome with graditude, his first thought is to steal what he can and escape, taking what little security he can, rather than trusting even the rare soul who has shwon him kindess. Authorities catch him with his stolen goods and lusting to cart him back to prison (if he got 20 years for stealing food before -- 14 for the theft and 5 for trying to escape -- he'll surely get 200 years for the silver and valuables he has taken). Captured with the stolen goods, he's taken back to the church, so the priest can help charge him, but to Valjean's surprise the holy man says that he gave Valjean the booty. In fact, he says that Valjean left in such a hurry that he forgot to take his most valuable present of all and the priest adds silver candlesticks to Valjean's bounty. Disappointed that they are losing their prey, the police have to let Valjean go. The priest wants no thanks for saving him. He only wants Valjean to show others the kindness that he was shown.

Years pass and the next time we see Valjean he is the prosperous mayor of a small town. He is also a businessman and employs people in a sewing factory. It's clean and quietly operated, not run under "sweat shop" conditions that were as prevalent then as they remain in some countries today. In the sewing factory, we meet Fantine, a hard-working young seamstress, being plied by the unwanted attentions of the foreman. The other seamstresses are jealous, probably not so much because she's young and pretty, but because she carries herself with class, something they never had -- not even in their youth, something even the foreman recognizes, as he tries to woo rather than intimidate her. One of the seamstresses plays lead bully. Her face is sharp, almost triangular -- a brilliant piece of casting -- as you see the petty nature in her caricature alone, if she never moved or opened her mouth. She spies a slip of paper in Fantine's pocket and moves to grab it. She learns that Fantine is sending money to an illegtimate child and is triumphant. This person who seemed good and virginal is no better than they are -- if that's what having a child out of wedlock proves. They tussle as Fantine tries to grab the paper back. When the foreman catches them tussling, the woman blames it on Fantine and quickly informs her of the girl's secret baby. He is soon resentful too. How dare Fantine have pretended to be too good for him, when she was no innocent. Of course, the fact that she'd had sex before doesn't mean that she wasn't too good for him, but that's nothing her detractors would let themselves admit. Only by dragging someone down to your level can you convince yourself it's not so bad being there.

Valjean hears the ruckus and asks what is happening. He believes the foreman who blames it all on Fantine and allows him to fire her, but cautions him to take the kindest course possible, an order that falls on deaf ears. fantine is thrown out onto the street without money and sells her hair, teeth and, against her will, her body to gain enough money to keep sending to the innkeepers who mind her daughter. She only became pregnant because she trusted the wrong man. He made love to her, spent a summer by her side, took her childhood in his stride, but by the autumn he was gone. And his betrayal is a gift that keeps on giving, because it's due to discovery of the child he gave her that she's now without a job and living on the street, used first by him and then by everyone.

Meanwhile, Javert is in town with his troops. He is obsequious when he meets the mayor, but when he sees the older man lift a cart singlehandedly to rescue a pinned man, he is reminded of Valjean and begins to suspect that the mayor and the convict are one in the same.

In the street, Valjean encounters the fallen Fantine, now a prostitute. She tells him that he is the one who sent her out onto the street to meet this fate. Stricken, he wants to do all that he can to help her. He has her taken to a hospital and promises to look after her daughter, as she dies. Ironically, Javert recognizes Valjean as much for his compassion as for his brute strength and he resents him as much for the former as the latter. He is about to bring Valjean in to court when he is told that the "real" Valjean has already been arrested. They found the prisoner elsewhere. Javert apologizes profusely to Valjean for having identified the wrong man. He thinks he should be punished, stripped of his uniform, even jailed, for his mistake. It's the first of many times that Valjean (frustratingly) foregoes the opportunity to rid himself of Javert for good. Hey Val, you don't rise above your enemy by becoming him, it's true, but the audience wouldn't mind a little vengeance now and then!

Valjean wrestles with himself. He's doing a lot of good in his community, as both mayor and employer. If this stranger goes to prison in his place, one life will be ruined, but many more will be saved through Valjean's ministrations. Surely the needs of the many outweigh the life of one wrongly accused man. But in the end he recognizes the slippery slope behind such knowledge and turns himself in. So unused to holding one of their own accountable for anything, Valjean's peers at the courthouse can more easily believe he's gone insane and needs medical care than that he's really an escaped convict. But he's ready to go to prison, he only asks that Javert let him go and help Fantine's orphaned child first. Javert, of course, refuses. Having cleared the man who had been arrested in his place, Valjean runs off. He finds Fantine's daughter, Cosette, being mistreated at an inn run by Thenardier and his wife. She's used as a workhorse, while their own daughter, Eponine is coddled. Even though they were being paid to keep her, they are the wicked stepmother and sisters to Cosette's Cinderella. Valjean finds the half-clothed girl out in the cold drawing water from a well in service to the Thernadiers. Valjean has to pay off the greedy foster parents to take her. Sasha Baron Cohen is one of my least favorite people and I'm so weary of the Burton-ruined Helena Bonham Carter playing the same nutty shrew in movie after moody(Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland)that it pains me to say how truly entertaining they were in their innkeeper roles.

On the run with Cosette, Valjean has found in her a reason to live. Fast forward to years later when we see a prosperous Valjean and Cosette, now a beautiful young women, giving money to the poor. Cosette quickly catches the eye of a young revolutionist, Marius and she returns his open adoration, but before they can connect, Javert identifies Valjean and they are on the run again. As Valjean hastily packs up their belongings, it's heartwarming to see that after all these years he still carries the silver candlestick given to him by the priest who helped him find redemption so many years ago. Cosette demands answers from her adopted father. What is his secret. Why must they always run? Why can't she ever make friends? We see the extravagant doll Valjean bought her when they met, when all she had at the Thenardiers' was a dingy, cloth bundle that she pretended was a doll. Considering the lavish life she has been given since then and the way her clothing and furnishings reflect Valjean's unbounded devotion to her, her rather ungrateful demands are a little annoying, but kids will be kids.

We learn that Eponine is in love with Marius. He fights for the revolution and most of his comrades are poor, but he hails from a rich family himself. He rejects those like his grandfather, chauffered in a horse and carriage, while those on the street outside are shoeless. Forsaking his heritage, Marius has a room in a humble inn. He used to frolic with Eponine there, but now that he's seen Cosette he has eyes for no one else. We know her parents are as avaricious as ever, but haven't seen Eponine grow up. Was she as selfish and conniving as them until her love for Marius changed her? One can't say, but realizing that Marius loves Cosette she screams out and warns Valjean when her father tries to capture them for a reward from Javert. Thenardier slaps her angrily. He may have spoiled her as a child, but she means nothing to her parents now. Still, she is able to give what she has never received. Although Valjean is good, the people who surround him are so grasping, cynical and manipulative that Eponine's selflessness is truly touching. When Valjean escapes with Cosette, Eponine hides a note that would tell Marius where they have gone. But she dresses as a boy and follows Marius into battle against the regime when many of the townspeople hide behind the walls of their home and won't save the lives of the young men who fight for their freedom. Eponine then throws herself in front of Marius in the heat of the fight, sacrificing her own life for his. As she dies, she gives him the note which will lead him to his beloved Cosette. He has the grace not to toss her aside to read it, but instead holds her, singing words of love to her as she dies, knowing they aren't true, but finding the only comfort she needs in the end.

Realizing that Cosette loves Marius, I half expected to want to hustle her out of the country all the faster, afraid of losing her perhaps. But he looks for the young man who has taken his daughter's heart. He finds him on the battleground (actually a narrow village pathway where the rebels have taken their stand, a wall of broken household furniture and debris the only barrier between them and certain death) and sees him risking his life to fight the government and uphold the values that Valjean himself believes in. The fighters are woefully outnumbered and their makeshift weapons cannot match the military's equipment, but their passion is as great as the government's callousness, making the uprise more successful than you (or France's army) would have predicted.

Javert tries to infiltrate the group of revolutionaries and is uncovered as an imposter. They chain him up. Valjean lets the others thing he will kill Javert, but instead frees his nemesis. When they fight, Javert reveals that he too is from the streets. He is a match for Valjean's physical prowess. And this idea that they have more in common than we knew brings more insight into Javert's need to break Valjean. If he doesn't, maybe he has not risen as far above his hated beginnings as he needs to believe he has. He seems to think that poverty is the shame, the crime itself, more than the misdemeanors the poor commit to stave off their hunger and despearate plights. If you're born poor, you've already transgressed, are presumed guilty. In Javert's world and in ours, poverty is the original sin.

His pardon is worse than a death blow. Javert does not want mercy or life, if it is given to him by Valjean. He wants his former prisoner to know that this doesn't change things. He will still capture or kill Valjean, as soon as he's given another chance. That knowledge doesn't change Valjean's decision to let Javert live. At this point, since Javert can lead his men right to Marius' small army, by letting him go I think that Valjean has compromised them, in a way that's almost treacherous. It has nothing to do with taking the higher moral ground any longer. You don't condemn innocent men, but you don't free guilty ones at the expense of the innocent either. He has bent so far over backwards not to let hate overtake him, that he's giving Javert's hate an opportunity to overtake others. He's gone from rising above sin, to committing another type, in my book.

Meanwhile, back at war, Valjean pulls Marius to safety, as the rest of the men (boys, really) in his group of fighters are blown away. He puts Marius on his back and swims through the sewers to elude government troops. Thenardier sees him and, as always, takes note, in case he can profit from it in the future. Suddenly, Valjean encounters Javert in the sewers. He pleads with Javert to let him take Marius to safety, then he will turn himself in, as soon as he's helped the boy. This is the same promise that Valjean offered by Fantine's deathbed. He was willing to go to jail, as soon as he'd rescured Cosette. Javert didn't accept the bargain then, but he hesitates this time, softened because Valjean has so recently preserved Javert's own life. Valjean gets away while Javert is frozen, uncertain, worst, empathizing. Javert hates himself for the lapse. He goes to the place where all the young revolutionaries died. Their bodies all lined up in a row. They deserved it. Most did. But he sees a child's corpse among the other. A precocious boy who fingered Javert as an undercover government officer. A lad who was already unafraid to die helping those he loved. Javert places a medal on the child's dead body. Once again, he sees that these people aren't simply lawbreakers. They aren't immoral. Indeed, they're as uber moral as he. They believe in their cause as much as he does.

Later, he walks on the same bridge where he vowed to capture Valjean, because Valjean walked in darkness while Javert -- he told himself -- trod the way of the lord, the only way. On that bridge again, Javert scorns Valjean's pity. How dare the man wrest him from death? They have nothing in common. If they do ... there are fates worse than death. He did not kill Valjean when he had the chance. He betrayed his government, everything he believed in, everything he depended upon to differentiate himself from those he mastered. Once the divide between them started to crumble, so does Javert. He can't be good in God's eyes, unless he's better. If he's like Valjean, then he's worthless, not because he tormented someone who should have had the same rights as he did, but because, ultimately, he couldn't any longer. He throws himself off the bridge plunging to his death.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Marius feels survivor's guilt for having lived when all of his peers perished. He remembers them all and the way they celebrated together. Now all that's left are empty chairs at empty tables. The memory of the hopes they made together. Marius is at home now. His grandfather's mansion. One wonders why, if he feels so guilty, he's no longer quibbling about being in the lap of luxury while others are still suffering. Cosette is by his side and they are to be married. He sees Valjean packing to steal away and wonders why he is leaving when it will devastate Cosette. Valjean tells Marius about his past as a prisoner. Instead of saying that it doesn't matter Marius looks kind of sad, but silently watches Valjean go with a, "you're right. Your leaving is the best thing, 'cause me and Cosie would be super embarassed if the truth about you came out," attitude.

Later the Thenardiers crash Marius and Cosette's wedding and looking to be paid off for keeping quiet, reveal that Thenardier saw Valjean carrying a man through the sewers on his back. Thenardier has the unknown man's ring to prove it. Marius recognizes the ring as his own and realizes that Valjean carried him away from the bloody battleground, keeping him alive. Then, he has a sudden change of heart and he and Cosette run to the church (the same one where the priest set Valjean on a new path, with his fortune in stolen goods) where Valjean has been hiding and tell, without explaining Valjean's past to Cosette, tells her that they owe Valjean everything. Well, whether or not Valjean was Marius' savior, just the fact that he was Cosette's loving father should have been enough to keep Marius from letting him go. Apparently it wasn't. But now he's had a change of heart and it's a short-lived group hug for the new little family, just before Valjean's head droops in death.

Then, a ghostly Fantine comes to join Valjean in death. I find this a bit mawkish, since she and Valjean had no real connection in life. It's not like Rose and Jack reunited on the lost Titanic, because they were soulmates. Valjean and Fantine were not. But the final scene with the dead revolutionists, even the little boy, reappearing, singing joyfully, still fighting for equality and waving the flag that symbolizes a better day is inspiring. They still dream a dream.

This movie made me understand and feel the story in a way that the play never did.

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