As a devoted fan of the stage show since January 1988 when I first experienced it at The Palace Theatre in London, I have to confess: I was extremely reticent over the prospect of seeing the film adaptation. Perhaps I was unsure of my own ability to switch environments – seeing new faces and hearing new voices, fearful of sitting there for three hours annoyed, and missing my old heroes. Maybe it was just my inherent small “c” conservatism, an instinctive preference for the cosy familiarity of the “Les Mis” I know so well and have loved for so long. Whatever it was, I was wrong – and I would now like to don the sackcloth and ashes, and order a large slice of humble pie.
Les Misérables on the big screen is magnificent – even magnifique. Epic in its scale, it is an assault on willingly-receptive senses right from the off. The adjustment I had so feared being unable to make was accomplished right away and without protest from my latent prejudices. One immediately noticeable improvement is the enhanced exposition of the movie version – little linkages are made in the narrative of the story that are not apparent – to me, anyway – from countless viewings of the stage show. The downward spiral of Fantine is thus portrayed and explained more effectively, and the emotional impact is increased. The same can be said of various other points in the film, where the reaction to unfolding events is unexpectedly raw, largely because what has caused those events to unfold is a lot clearer.
This shuddering impact – the emotional equivalent of a kick in the guts – is never more pronounced than during the suffering and despair of Fantine. We know what she is going through when we see the show at the theatre. It’s horrible, and unfair, and we weep for the hapless victim of pitiless exploitation. But withal, there is an ethereal prettiness about the character even as she labours under the cruelty of fate as manifested by various uncaring men. It’s a broad brush which paints the picture on the stage, skilfully as it might be done.
Contrast this with Anne Hathaway’s no-holds-barred portrayal of descent into despair, loss and death. No soft focus here, no semi-comic images of the harlots scene. There is an ugliness and horror about Fantine’s situation as it plummets downhill, and Ms Hathaway treats us to a smorgasbord of blood, sweat, grime and tears, not to mention snot, spit and coarse dentistry. Her evocation of innocence and anger at cruel fate is compelling even as it is repellent. The pathos of her dawning, disbelieving hope as Valjean whisks her away to hospital is palpable, and the skill of the performer is complemented by pitiless close-ups, every nuance of expression and suffering right in your face. The impact is awesome, in a way that could never be achieved on stage. You sit there in the dark, and you suffer – vicariously it’s true, but nonetheless convincing for that.
Look out for and beware many such moments of tear-jerking, sob-racking grief in this three hour marathon which yet somehow flies by. The rebel’s badge placed with unexpected tenderness on the corpse of a young boy, whose sightless eyes rivet the watcher in horror at such waste. The last two students, cornered by an open window and snarling defiance behind their tattered flag as they face the guns levelled at them, determined on their martyrdom and quite impervious to fear. Powerful, massively emotive stuff.
This is the magic of the movie treatment of Les Mis. Time and again, you are drawn inexorably into the inner feelings of a character in extremis, and this applies to heroes and villains alike. The distinction between the two poles of good and evil is fine, as it should be with any real, human story. These are three-dimensional characters given full rein by the possibilities offered on the big screen. Our feelings are not spared, and there is uncomfortably little distance between our perspective and the struggle and conflicts unfolding before us. But the same also applies to the moments of love and beauty, and to the final message of redemption, and we are warmed by these in equal measure to the shock and grief we experience elsewhere.
Les Misérables is a motion picture tribute to an immortal piece of musical theatre, and as such it has more than achieved its goal, which must – as a minimum – have been to leave the legacy untarnished. In actually enhancing the experience, it has certainly surpassed my expectations, and I feel that the next time I see the show, it will be with an increased understanding of the story, the characters and the whole phenomenon. An amazing movie and one I would heartily recommend to anyone – but make sure you’re adequately hydrated, and take plenty of tissues….