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a promotional poster of Russel Crow as Javert looking stern - caption reads I am the law



‘At the end of the day you're another day older
And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
It's a struggle, it's a war
And there's nothing that anyone's giving
One more day, standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.’


These lyrics are taken from‘At the End of the Day’, one of the early songs performed in the theatre production of ‘Les Misérables’. The lyrics are sung by a crowd of poor characters in nineteenth century France, who use ‘At the End of the Day’ to explain their situation to the audience. As the song progresses they say they are ‘cold', contending with plague, and ‘one day nearer to dying’. If we assume that the audience is made up of reasonable human beings, this description of life should be enough to encourage them to feel pity for the people who are singing.

The lines above are sung quickly with a staccato crunch to them; a pace and rhythm which reflects the frantic lives of the crowd that is singing. The first, second, fifth and sixth lines contain phrases which could be complete sentences on their own and when the singers come to the end of these lines you can hear them snap down hard on the final word, emphasising through tone the way the trap of poverty closes on them every day. These musical elements remind the audience of the crushing grasp of circumstances, but at the same time, because of the harsh and hammering nature of this song, the poor are given a musical power quite beyond any influence they wield in their world.

And as the lyrics progress it's clear that this song is not the appeal for alms that an audience might expect to hear from people suffering as the crowd are, but a laundry list of complaints - and rather angry complaints at that. Metaphorically cloaked intimations of what is to come if these complaints are not dealt with begin to appear as the song progresses:

‘Like the waves crash on the sand
Like a storm that'll break any second
There's a hunger in the land
There's a reckoning still to be reckoned
And there's gonna be hell to pay
At the end of the day!’


These words indicate that the crowd have not been distracted by the pain they have suffered during the ‘struggle’ and ‘war’ of poverty. They clearly see what they lack and who has more than their fair share, because they are confronted with that knowledge every day. And the longer they stay hungry, the keener their sense of what is owed. For this crowd pain is the catalyst for action, and soon they will come knocking on the doors of ‘the righteous’ hypocrites that the song treats with contempt as they ‘hurry past’, asking for what they feel is due. At the end of the song the audience comes away with the impression that though these people are cold and in pain, poverty has also filled them with an anger which is beginning to bubble to the surface. The people singing are taking their chance to privately display their contempt for those who oppress them, using ‘At the End of the Day’ as a swelling aside for the ears of the audience only.

When the main crowd song finishes individual female workers sing:

‘There are children back at home
And the children have got to be fed
And you're lucky to be in a job
And in a bed!
And we're counting our blessings!’

the audience is left very aware that the people see these ‘blessings’ clearly for the scraps they are. ‘At the End of the Day’ may be about the plight of the poor, but its call for understanding and sympathy is outraged; the arrangement and performance of this song practically forbids pity and as the lyrics progress the growing discontent of the crowd is clear. Here is a warning about the future, that is full of animosity and hope.

The idea that inequality is present, and so materially unfair that it requires opposition, needs to be aired frequently, especially in the UK today. Our Prime Minister backs benefit cuts. It is common to see well-off MPs claiming to be ‘men of the people’ and at the same time deriding those people as cheats, who deserve to lose the support they need. Our government and certain powerful sections of the media are invested in establishing a false, damaging image of people who struggle with financial difficulties. ‘At the End of the Day’ fights to advance a different view and does so in the voice of the people who, were they present in society today, would be labelled scroungers and trash by many who have never had to worry about money. And it is not the only part of this musical that gives poorer people a voice. What a good year for a film adaptation then.



While ‘Les Misérables’ is never going to end poverty, or feed a child, it seems important that this musical be well known and visible if it provides even a slightly counter-balance to conservative, modern views. And considering that the musical is largely concerned with the lives of the poorest section of nineteenth century French society, a film adaptation seems long overdue. Until now ‘Les Misérables’ has been solely available in theatres, which has meant that the audience who saw these songs, many of which allow poorer characters to show why they need understanding and empathy, have always been largely composed of people with middle to upper-level incomes1. Essentially you’ve got these audiences full of people (including me, I’ve paid to see it twice) who can afford a theatre ticket (that’s people who are likely currently in a secure financial position) watching a musical that is often about people living with extreme poverty. You may notice a slight disconnect here.

There’s a lot to be said for the necessity of exposing a well-off audience to this kind of story. On stage ‘At the End of the Day’ is sung to the audience, while the rich in society appear unaware of their gathering or walk past it apparently without hearing the song (if they could they would surely strike the poorer characters down). This confidence draws the audience in, as the crowd appears to believe in their understanding and fellow feeling, encouraging them to root for people living in poverty. It also sets the audience apart from the crowd's oppressors, making them feel less personally confronted and more able to absorb the vital message and anger from this song. The way this song is set up encourages any audience to join the crowd, and in doing so, to distance themselves from any ingrained views about poverty. A surprise ambush of empathy can be an effective way of securing ally support.

However, I still find it hard to deny that the mix of the musical’s subject matter and the economic makeup of a typical theatre audience feels mildly bitter. Many of the students lining the barricades during the iconic protest song ‘Do you Hear the People Sing’ are middle-class, or upper-class characters who have disowned their backgrounds (but crucially still have those backgrounds to fall back on). And that adds an extra layer of irony to the whole experience. These well-off characters sing about bringing on a revolution for the poor, to audiences largely made up of people with similarly well-of backgrounds, while the people who may have experience of problems similar to those referenced in songs like ‘At the End of the Day’ are generally outside the theatre’s doors. Shouldn’t stories about disenfranchised groups be just as much a mirror as a window? And isn’t that mirror function even more important when the piece of media contains a rousing depiction of true, validated rage?

So, even though I was a little bit leery about various elements of the ‘Les Mis’ film adaptation, whatever its artistic result the adaptation serves an important purpose in returning the angry, singing revolution to people who could probably do with ‘the music of the people who will not be slaves again’2. With the release of the film adaptation, this musical about people in hard financial situations and an attempted revolution against the upper classes is much more accessible to people on lower incomes. Cinema tickets are still expensive, but they’re cheaper than most theatre tickets. You don’t have to live in any special location (like London) to see the film, and even if your local cinemas are convinced your area doesn’t care for films based on nineteenth century door stopper novels, eventually the DVD or the online leak/stream will turn up. While I know that the film still won’t be available to everyone (the homeless, for example, will not be getting this film, nor will people who live on such low wages that a cinema ticket is an absolute luxury, and if you can’t afford the internet you can’t stream) but the singing revolution is no longer mostly for people unaffected by economic struggles. The revolution of the visual, musical version of ‘Les Misérables’ can now go beyond the middle-class, theatre stage. (ETA: A couple of people have mentioned the role TV adaptations and DVD recordings of the theatre production may play in making the musical more economically available.)

It’s difficult to talk in depth about a faithful adaptation of one artistic source without talking about the source it is translating. The themes, characters and songs of the film adaptation of ‘Les Mis’ are all transposed from the stage production and any comments about the effectiveness of those elements must rest on the original stage creation, unless their effectiveness is enhanced or compromised by the film’s staging or presentation of the story. Ideas about the strength of this film’s production and cast are interesting, but I also want to talk about the big themes of ‘Les Mis’, so in this post I'm going to try and pull off a balancing act between talking about the musical and talking about this film. Hopefully I won’t fall off my tightrope.

The film opens, as the musical does, with ‘Look Down’. This is a prison work song, where a simple, one two beat rhythm’, matches the strokes of whatever work the convicts are engaged in3. The use of this rhythm, which is repeated through the song, fits 'Look Down' to the situation it occurs in, where the convicts are engaged in hauling ropes to pull in a large ship (something which I’m told happens in the book, but which isn't present in every version of the stage show). This song is chilling enough when the audience just considers the meaning in the lyrics:

‘Look down, look down
Don't look 'em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You're here until you die’


but the recurring phrase of 'Look down, look down', coupled with the register of the song, lends an extra quality to the song, mixing ominous deeper notes with a rhythm steeped in the drudgery of slow repetition. Just in case the message of hopelessness isn’t thrust far enough down the audience’s throat, the rest of the song progresses in a grim call and response fashion. Whenever an avowal of hope rises among the men who are hauling rope, it is countered by the deep, trudging bass boom of ‘Look down, look down’ and further kicked in the teeth by a follow on lyric which dashes all thoughts of possibility away. For example:

‘I know, she’ll wait
I know that she’ll be true
Look down, look down
They’ve all forgotten you…

I’ve done no wrong
Sweet Jesus hear my prayer
Look down, look down
Sweet Jesus doesn’t care’


I said that ‘Les Mis’ is a musical about poverty, but that’s not the only deep issue that this piece of sing-along entertainment offers its audience. It is also deeply concerned with faith and doubt. In this lyric the audience sees the first appearance of that theme. This place pushes the men so far down that when one calls out to God, the others slap him down with practicality. Considering that this is 19th century France, a place with its fair share of scepticism but also a place of devout religion, the viewer can see just how hard these men have had their souls crushed. In contrast to ‘At the End of the Day’, ‘Look Down’ offers no redemptive rallying call, no hope of any change. This is a song from the bottom of the pit.

It is fitting that one of the longest lasting relationships in the film begins here, because it is a relationship that denies either party the chance to move on from this desperate prison where it begins just as most of the prisoners can expect to stay there until they die. After the convicts work is over, Jean Valjean, played here by Hugh Jackman, is ordered to retrieve a flag atop a heavy mast pole and drag it back to the masochistic Inspector Javert, played here by Russell Crowe:

Javert is wearing a bright blue hat and coat and in a picture below him Britney Spears wears a similar outfit that is stylled to look like a flight attendant

(source)


These two men are tied together by the film’s investigation of faith and doubt, as well as the cat and mouse chaseJavert will begin soon after Jean Valjean is released. I say their relationship begins when Jean Valjean returns the flag, but actually it’s clear the men have a long history and that Javert’s unmerciful command comes as no surprise to Jean Valjean. He returns the flag wearied and with a firm look in his eyes, but understands that it is not a good idea to attack the man who stands before him with his parole papers. A singing dialogue battle begins between the two men, which sounds like an argument two old acquaintances have had many times before; one they each know so off by heart that they don’t have to listen to the other participant's piece:



[VALJEAN]

I stole a loaf of bread.

[JAVERT]

You robbed a house.

[VALJEAN]

I broke a window pane.

My sister's child was close to death

And we were starving.

[JAVERT]

You will starve again

Unless you learn the meaning of the law.

[VALJEAN]

I know the meaning of those 19 years

A slave of the law’


Jean Valjean explains why he is in prison. Javert fires a blocking line, which denies Jean Valjean’s explanation. Javert reminds Jean Valjean of the overbearing presence of the law and Jean Valjean shoots back that he well knows the meaning of the law, having suffered from its treatment for so long. While Jackman reacts to Crowe’s character's words with a determined expression, he avoids his eyes and neither really allows the other to penetrate their universe during this conversation; they may as well be talking to the air. We’ve all had those kind of conversations, right? Yet despite their disconnect in this conversation, they are already determinedly attached to each other for life through the experience of the prison. Javert’s unbending obsession with Jean Valjean and what he perceives as Valjean's true nature, formed within the prison walls, will continue and is facilitated by Jean Valjean’s need to break parole to reinvent himself and survive.

They are opposites to start with – the inspector and the criminal - but as the film moves on they become even more polarised. Javert never allows himself to learn anything that conflicts with his belief that no man can change, while Jean Valjean sloughs off his prison-born hardness and changes forever when he is shown that a man can be offered simple kindness. As a pair of rugged, traditionally masculine men, whose relationship is based on the idea of combative opposites, they’re pretty much made to slot into the M/M shipping world, especially when you factor in the film’s delight in close up shots:

Jean Valjean and Javert look at each other


Wow, does this particular version of ‘Les Mis’ likes to explicitly fill out the shippy, eye fuckery potential of such an intense relationship4. I would say on stage this relationship is shippy if you’re looking for it. The film, however, is practically shoving the evidence of their long-standing, desperately unhappy affair on the audience with the build up of eye fucking and switches between close up shots of their faces. I find it hard to believe that the actors’ well known friendship and the media’s growing understanding of how slash fandom works didn’t factor in a little when the production team were deciding whether to cast both of them. Kate Beaton's Nemesis cartoon is their filmic relationship summed up with prescient clairvoyance. Well played Kate Beaton.

But, even ignoring the close up shots of locked gazes, the air between Jean Valjean and Javert is swampy with tension. Eventually Jean Valjean will inspire Javert to an existential crisis, and his inability to bend and bear the doubt inspired by the former felon’s redemptive story leads him to kill himself5. Theirs is a pretty intense story line, but one which I feel can slightly fade into the background on stage. Once a film obsessed with close ups and inspiring detailed facial expressions in its actors gets hold of that story, it is going to explode in all its true feelings. While by the end of ‘Les Mis’ viewers may still feel that they ‘know nothing of Javert’ when it comes to the substance of his life and the reasons for his beliefs, it is perhaps still hard to watch that suicide without some regret, after seeing him engaged in such an in-depth, long-lasting relationship full of feelings.

With that vaguely sticky adjective, ‘swampy’ out there, I should just come right out and say it; whenever I see ‘Les Mis’ Javert is always the character that intrigues me the most. He’s most definitely “the man”; at every turn he proves the voice of conservative authority. And disregarding the Mcshippy, repressed potential of the way he looks at Jean Valjean in this adaptation, he should be a character I want to keep very, very…. very far away from me. His mindset is relatively simple: He feels people must take the whole responsibility of any moral lapse on their own shoulders and bear that load for the rest of their lives with no expectation of forgiveness. And its simplicity, its inability to allow for grey areas, makes him horrific. He doggedly sets to hunt down a man because that is his duty and he allows nothing to intrude on his duty. It’s almost as if he is an emotionless robot, which has been programmed to a task. He can only be deterred by destruction, nothing else computes.

Javert is largely a representational character, who stands in for the nineteenth century French legal system. One of the reasons why ‘Look Down’ is such a terrifying song is because, with Javert standing over the prisoners throughout, it becomes a window into the unbending heart of authority. He has no regard for the social circumstances which lead people to commit criminal acts, as the viewer sees when he rejects Jean Valjean’s explanation that he committed his crime to save his sister’s child from starvation. He believes in the need to punish criminality absolutely, but does not believe that punishment can bring redemption. And perhaps worse still, all crime is equal to him; once someone falls there is no way back in Javert’s eyes, no matter how small their crime. These last two ideas are alluded to when he reminds Jean Valjean that his parole doesn’t remove his title of ‘thief’ or make him free, it just means he gets his ‘yellow ticket’. Javert is a stiff-backed moral absolutist whose views are very in line with the Conservative/establishment ideas of today. There can be no appeal to an inhuman force like him, and by association no appeal or hope of finding a reasonable human heart in the law.

Yeah, thanks again Cameron Mackintosh for making me so interested in a man who is clearly every liberal’s most dangerous enemy. Thanks a bunch.

As Javert appoints himself guardian of all the morals in this story, it is interesting to note that his own moral code deviates from any idea of ‘goodness’, which allows for compassion. Like many in authority, he makes dubious moral choices, which if closely and fairly examined would show up as violations of a normal person’s moral code, and which stray from the teachings of established religion, the touchstone for moral standards in many cultures. He lies, he pursues vindictively and he shows no pity. But he still believes himself morally unimpeachable, because he doesn’t violate the moral guidelines he and his governmental masters have set out for him. Morality, twisted, leaves Javert able to calmly and authoritatively function without feeling a trace of hypocrisy, even though to the audience he may seem immensely flawed.

As Javert sees himself as a paragon of moral duty when he feels he has failed his own code(for example when he believes his information about ‘M'sieur le Mayor’ is incorrect and he has spied on someone in a superior position of authority for no reason) he offers himself for punishment honestly. He is determined to spare himself nothing in his quest to uphold a standard that must remain absolute to provide him with peace of mind and internal certainty. If Javert’s moral code were to be proved lacking or doubtful, it would end him.

And so it eventually does. Javert’s moral code is constructed in a way which allows for no compromise, no self-realisation, and no disturbance. In his final song, he asks‘And must I now begin to doubt/ Who never doubted all these years?’

When Jean Valjean plants doubt about his value system in his mind, Javert throws himself to his death rather than examine his life and think critically about his past actions. No one commits to internal justification quite as much as Javert.

But for me, this single-mindedness and his inability to make allowances turns him into one of the most fascinating characters in ‘Les Mis’, however little his motivations may be fleshed out. Personally, I’m forever interested in the social structures that make people so able to embrace callousness. What shapes a human being to make them become so merciless and so certain of a system of morality which admits no reasonable mercy? It is difficult to draw concrete conclusions about what makes Javert into who he is, because as I said, he is largely a representational character for the larger, relentless authority of the law. Neither the stage musical nor this recent film adaptation advances any realistic, individual personal circumstances that may have shaped him into this form. We know he is ‘from the gutter too’ *weeps* but, uhrghn *breathes* that is about it.

However, precisely because of this lack of canon character development, he becomes a character full of possibilities. Interestingly, while the whole chain of rhetoric and social shaping that makes Javert who he is may be missing from the canon of the stage and film version of ‘Les Mis’, Javert is also in small ways more than a blocky stand in for ideas about a government distanced from its people. Most basically, he is given his own words and allowed to sing a sweet and clear solo, ‘Stars’ without interruption from other characters. Writing rule 101: If you want to de-humanise a character, take away their individual voice. Allowing Javert space to speak gives the audience a chance to connect with him, even if by the end of the musical they still judge him to be a villain. I fully admit, I am a sap for villains who get to say even a little bit more than mwahahaha, even if what they say is still slightly fanatical. His solo makes me want to know whether Javert is a knowing monster, a dupe of a social system, or a different kind of character altogether, who shines a disturbing and complicated light on our humanity? All of these possibilities are suggested, but not confirmed by the musical canon’s inclusion of Javert 6, and I do so love a mystery which will never produce a concrete answer. Mystery for its own sake is a staple of an education split between English Literature and History - true story.

Javert in military uniform - caption reads He's a life ruiner. He ruins lives.

(source)


At least we can all agree on this.

Javert’s unknown quantity is partly why I think that Crowe’s casting works for me. He plays Javert as the blank he is, with little facial expression and little use of emotive tones of voice. The rest of the principal cast concentrate on detailed facial acting and often split from clear, enunciated singing to shade in emotions with sing-speaking, or by deliberately breaking down on notes. But Javert is in some way inhuman, or at least models himself on the classic idea of the immovable stoic. His character is not meant to waver under the extreme close ups of this film, and he is not supposed to provide a deeper insight into his soul, except at a few key points in the story. So, Crowe’s lack of emotion and one tone singing fit with the character he is playing.

Could an actor have advanced Javert’s character past the hard to read canon of the original stage musical in this film adaptation? Sure, it would have been possible to expand how much access the audience has to this character’s inner soul without even having to introduce any new, revisionist elements into the film. After all, Hathaway takes the relatively undeveloped Fantine well past any characterisation I’ve ever seen on stage, just by making the most of the film’s obsessive close ups and concentrating on producing detailed, emotive facial expressions. Am I sure Crowe is making a choice to play Javert blank, rather than just failing to create an interesting performance? No, of course not, and I’m not going to make any one true interpretation assertions about Crowe’s style of acting. I’m inclined to think this is not a very good acting job, but I still kind of like the results because they work with Javert’s characterisation. Whether he is making a choice or not, this film provides one satisfying version of Javert for me.







Russel Crowe explaining that Les Mis was a very profound set for him to be on and every time he starts a new project a small part of him will want to be starting Les Mis again

(source)


Stay strong Jodie. Remember, your interest in Crowe is mostly based on nostalgia for films he made ten years ago.7

We will get to the obvious questions that Crowe’s inclusion in a musical (however I may have personally fallen for his performance) raises about Hollywood’s priorities later, but seeing as I’ve essentially dragged Anne Hathaway in to show you what Crowe could have done, let me talk about her performance a little bit. Truth telling time – do we care about Fantine? I’ve got to admit that although Fantine’s hard life and fortitude means she deserves to be everyone’s favourite character, she has never been mine. I suspect this is because up until now I’ve seen her played rather cleanly, embodying the demure sadness and virtue that I expect I might find in Hugo’s nineteenth century vision of a heroic woman who has fallen on hard times. Hathaway’s vision (and there is something about this performance, perhaps the look in her eyes, that makes it seem that she has connected with her character and made Fantine into her own creation) is much more gritty and desperate. Now part of that is down to the mix of costuming, setting and the close nature of film, especially this film, which gets right up in the characters eyeballs. The dirt is closer to the audience on film, and everyone can see the subtle expressions in Hathaway’s eyes as she falls into the dark horrors of her new life.

And then there’s her scene with the soldier who pays her for sex. Following the lyric ‘don’t it make a change to have a girl who can’t say no’, Fantine woozily takes him into a dirty secluded room where he perfunctorily pumps away at her unmoving body. It’s a scene which simply illustrates rape and strips away the illusion that there’s any consent going on here between Fantine, the prostitute, and the soldier who is wordlessly shagging her. The setting is dark and grim, showing the unsavoury nature of the situation, but it’s the complete absence of sound (bar the soldier’s grunts) in the middle of a musical and Fantine’s stillness, which make sure the audience understands there is no pleasure or basic willingness here in this act of hers.

All of these staging decisions may be attributable to someone other than Hathaway, although she is the person who brings their idea to life in this precise way. But there are little details of individual expression that make Fantine a richer character than I have ever seen her be on stage - these can only come from Hathaway, as she has to make them appear in her face. When she talks to the foreman, who eventually sacks her and dooms her to sell herself to support her child, she sings the line ‘And her father abandoned us/leaving us flat’. It’s one of those small lines in ‘Les Mis’ which are full of simple truth and emotion. Several of the other actors in this adaptation choose to turn those small lines into something more speech than song, the break from singing intended to emphasise the emotion of the moment. When Eddie Redmayne, for example, comes to sing ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, he turns the line ‘Oh my friends, my friends forgive me’, which I have seen swell on stage, into a sentiment that Marius just cannot get through in song, and has his character break into speech. Hathaway takes the more conventional road of the stage, where all lines must be sung through and all notes hit no matter what emotional justification there might be for a realistic break in the notes. So, she sings through these words clean and rather pure, but at the same time she manages to cast great emotion into that line in a different way, with her eyes and her body.

By the end of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, Fantine’s big solo about abandonment, a woman in our cinema was full out wretched, ugly sobbing, and with good reason. Hathaway’s performance deserves all the superlatives, particularly because she makes such a short amount of screen time count (Fantine is ruined then dead within no more than half an hour). Her voice is very good too. Although she changes at least one key note in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, she has a rich tone and outclasses the two main male character whose singing was so talked about in the lead up to release.

And this is where we come to my main problem with the film adaptation of ‘Les Misérables'. It is incredibly naïve to say that Hugh Jackman was in no way the one and only very best man to take the lead role of Jean Valjean, or that Crowe is just not that good a singer and so probably should have been ruled out of this project - but Ima say it anyway, because it is true. ‘Les Mis’ is a musical. It is a musical. While the acting ability of those involved is important, the singing is still absolutely vital. A production like this should be filled with exceptional singers – end of.

Look, we all know how this goes: big name actors bring in the audiences. In difficult economic times, studios want to see each project justify itself as a sure fire project before release, which means casting people with established followers. This is not a new issue in the creative fields, nor is it confined to film. Hell, the stage suffers just as much from the domination of established people who can draw the crowds, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a stage musical that cast someone who couldn’t sing the notes written on their sheet music in a leading role8. Still, however old this issue gets, however widespread, it remains troubling. Unknown people with astounding voices stand little chance of getting the lead role in a film adaptation of a well-loved, long-running musical, especially if the studios think they will need to appeal to audiences who may well be suspicious of films where everyone sings all the time.9 Instead people with just a smidge of vocal competency take those roles and this produces the expected results.

I think Hugh Jackman is a delightful actor, ok! His face is so expressive and his attempt to portray Jean Valjean is well done, committed stuff in many scenes, most notably during ‘What Have I Done?’, when his confusion and conflicted desires are written in the movement of the creases on his face. And Jean Valjean’s solos are enough to challenge great singers: there’s a temptation to excuse the fact that he has been given a vocal part he can not carry, simply because it is hard. But… perhaps studios - and this is radical - perhaps you could cast one of the many great singers out there just waiting for a chance at this role instead of a famous actor who has to force his way through the vocal part ? Jackman sticks mostly to what I guess is his head voice, even when the part requires him to sing more from the diaphragm. I mean, just compare his singing with that of Colm Wilkinson a former Jean Valjean from the stage Dreamcast, who plays the Bishop in this adaptation and you’ll see the depth and tone that is missing. I feel the same way about Crowe’s inclusion in this project, although luckily for him his vocal part is less central and challenging than Jackman’s –he's spared the need to go from ‘What Have I Done?’, which messes around with all that speed and some tricky notes, to ‘Bring Him Home’, which is iconic and needs a lot of technical skill. I mean, I have enjoyed both actors in other roles and I did think it was fun to see actors who are friends in the same project together, but… again, this is a musical. I don’t think I’m being controversial when I say great singers should be involved in these performances.

But, ok, screed over - he does have the part and he must make his way through the songs. Overall, for an actor who sings a bit, he makes a good effort, so let me move on. Berating actors who are not accomplished singers for accepting parts in a project that was never really going to be allowed to be about the singing is tiring. The whole incestuous business of the film industry becomes tiring if you look at it for too long. Instead, let me get more positive as we move towards the doors and tell you about five of my other top ‘Les Mis’ movie moments:

1.) Gavroche’s précis to the situation in France is so much fun. He hitches a lift on the back of a carriage, and then jumps in and out of the carriage windows to the horror of the rich folk. Daniel Huttlestone (another one of the minor cast drawn from a stage background) creates a plucky, cheeky character which is exactly right for the young boy who will ill-advisedly walk into the line of fire for his comrades.

2.) Seeing how Samantha Barks acting has come along. Barks was one of the final three women left when Andrew Lloyd Webber set up a TV talent search to fill the role of Nancy in the ‘Oliver Twist’ stage show. While her vocal reach was excellent, I always felt like she was cut off from the emotion in all the songs she performed and just made a selection of faces she’d seen other actors make. She still has a long way to go pull a Hathaway, but I believed her Éponine was a person.

3.) The way ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ was introduced was so well staged. It starts quietly,which is appropriate for both the funeral situation and the very beginnings of a revolution. The students dotted throughout the mourning crowd let it build gradually and slowly it grows, as others join in, until it is the well-known revolutionary appeal that unites everyone, if only for a moment.

4.) The fight scene between Javert and Jean Valjean! That scene made me really want AU fix it fic where they have many adventures together and occasionally fall out dramatically. Sadly it is not to be. (ETA: A couple of commenters have mentioned that there is much AU fix it fic available, which alerted me to the fact that I had written something in this post that I did not mean. I meant to say that unfortunately the friendship I describe in this footnote will never exist in canon, not that it will never exist in fan-fic, but that is obviously not what this sentence says. A lesson to check my writing 101 time, not just 100.)

5.) I didn’t think Sacha Baron Cohen and Helene Bonham Carter made ‘Master of the House’ quite big enough, considering its potential for so much trickery and physical comedy. However, I really liked the part where Helena Bonham Carter sang-talked while sitting on the soldier's lap. She knows how to draw all eyes to her and how make every little movement of her face mean so much.

As technically ropey as some of the performances may be in this film adaptation, and as manipulatively sentimental as the source material is if you examine it literally10, ‘Les Mis’ feels undeniably powerful to me both on stage and on film. Are the audience going to rise after seeing this film? Um… But might we all think more carefully about poverty after being swept along by performances like Hathaway’s? I am going to choose to believe that is possible. Jean Valjean’s journey is transformative and I choose to believe in the signals it sends - that if we’re open to change we can be influenced to change. We can be open to doubt and discovery, we can get sappy over the themes of a dodgily sung musical adaptation and we can change because of those things. We do not have to go down like Javert!

Notes

1 Disclaimer: I’m sure there are people on lower incomes who do go to the theatre, but theatre prices are still not regularly set to make the show accessible to them.

2 I’m not such a dope that I think now that people on low incomes have better access to ‘Les Mis’ all their problems are solved and the revolution will begin tomorrow. I just think if you are a part of a disenfranchised group and someone writes a story that is in some way applicable to your situation you should probably have access to it.

3 Variations of these rhythms are also found in depictions of sea shanties among sailors at work and slave ship drum songs.

4 I mean, as explicitly as a mainstream film sticking to a straight guy canon can fill out such shippy intimations, which means, yep, still no make outs.

5 And yes, the fact that Javert takes his own life makes me too uncomfortable to join in with shipping this pair, despite the ease of inserting gay subtext into Javert’s final song (‘And must I now begin to doubt/Who never doubted all these years?/My heart is stone and still it trembles/The world I have known is lost in shadow./Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know/That granting me my life today/This man has killed me even so?’):

Javert in uniform singing - caption reads He will pay and so must I.

(source)


Ugh where is that fix it fic? :(

6 Although, perhaps they are easily answered if we refer to the nineteenth century novel the musical is based on. I’ll let you know when I get through all the pages.

7 And as much as I love the sentiment behind this gif (this is the love of his life project, no matter what – enjoying working on a project can be its own reward) people did pay to see this project. When an actor professes love for a project which may objectively not be at its best artistically, it’s important to remember that the actor is probably much richer than the majority of people who paid to see that project, and that creative results are just as important as actor job satisfaction when money changes hands for entertainment.

8 Although I still can't believe Chris Moyles is part of the 'Jesus Christ Superstar' arena tour There are a lot of notes he can't get when he sings on TV.

9 Yes, I know that Samantha Barks, who is relatively unknown outside of the UK, is playing Éponine. I love Éponine with all my heart and soul, but her part is very small compared to Jean Valjean’s. Casting Samantha Katz in a film already stuffed full of stars can hardly be described as ‘taking a risk’, especially when her talent is so pronounced; she was part of the stadium performance of ‘Les Mis’ on its 20th anniversary tour and she has had close dealings with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Come on, let us be real.

10One scene involves a tiny child, dressed in rags, who has been sent alone into snow covered the woods lugging a heavy bucket, singing ‘crying at all is not allowed’. I mean that is one of my favourite lines, but come on, Mackintosh, come on - we all see what you are trying to do.


Interesting posts

gyzm: 'les mis as explained to me by tumblr'
Hello Tailor: 'Les Mis: Seriously, Javert? Seriously??'
The Booksmugglers: 'From Page to Screen: The 2013 Oscars Edition'
Fandomspotting: Jam Session #1: Jam Valjean
meangirls + Les Mis - via cleolinda

Date: 2013-04-03 01:27 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
"While ‘Les Misérables’ is never going to end poverty, or feed a child, it seems important that this musical be well known and visible if it provides even a slightly counter-balance to conservative, modern views."

Yes. Like you I don't think it'll bring about the singing revolution (sadly), but... it's a counter-narrative and counter-narratives matter.

One day I'll actually watch/read this. I know I've said this before, but brilliant post ♥

Date: 2013-04-03 06:00 pm (UTC)
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)
From: [personal profile] oyceter
Thanks! I really like the look at "At the End of the Day" and "Look Down," especially the focus on the anger of the poor and how the songs don't ask the audience to pity them.

Minor note: I wouldn't quite say Hugh Jackman is an actor who sings a bit, since he has actually been in stage musical productions before really breaking out in the movies. That said, Valjean's role is totally not in his range, and I suspect his voice training had fallen off quite a bit between his stage roles and this.

Date: 2013-04-03 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Until now ‘Les Misérables’ has been solely available in theatres, which has meant that the audience who saw these songs, many of which allow poorer characters to show why they need understanding and empathy, have always been largely composed of people with middle to upper-level incomes

You may be happy to know that this is not actually the case; I first saw this musical aired on PBS when I was a kid. Obviously that doesn't make it accessible to absolutely everyone, but many Americans with no access to theater productions have had a chance to see it.

Date: 2013-04-06 06:02 pm (UTC)
foxfirefey: A guy looking ridiculous by doing a fashionable posing with a mouse, slinging the cord over his shoulders. (geek)
From: [personal profile] foxfirefey
If anyone would like to read a light hearted run down of the book that highlights differences with the musical, [profile] skygiant did a great one.

Date: 2013-04-09 05:42 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I am still afraid of constant singing.

Date: 2013-04-09 06:47 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Yes, that's it. Even clips I've seen make me want to die inside and go "DON'T DO IT. WHY." The confidence on these actors.

Date: 2013-04-11 04:58 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
4.) The fight scene between Javert and Jean Valjean! That scene made me really want AU fix it fic where they have many adventures together and occasionally fall out dramatically. Sadly it is not to be.

Um... it is definitely to be, actually, unless you want strictly gen even in fix-it scenarios - Three Days (or The One Where Javert and Valjean Take a Road Trip Through France and Raise a Child) by Zamwessell is basically exactly this and it's also probably the most well-known and most-recced fic of the movie-renaissance fandom. There is also a ton of Seine AU fix it fic, both gen and slash, in recent fandom and some from older fandom as well.

Date: 2013-04-11 05:12 am (UTC)
carmarthen: "Would you like my hat?" (Default)
From: [personal profile] carmarthen
6 Although, perhaps they are easily answered if we refer to the nineteenth century novel the musical is based on. I’ll let you know when I get through all the pages.

All these questions are answered for Javert in the book, to some degree--although I personally find it pretty hard to reconcile the sassy, prone to babbling, drama queen, weird Javert with a pile of internalized class issues of the book with Crowe's take on the role, so I don't think they much help answer the questions for Crowe's Javert. (I don't...dislike...Crowe's Javert, but but I find him way less interesting than pretty much any other adaptation, even Geoffrey Rush's strangely mean Javert in 1998, and definitely less interesting than the Javert in the book. Crowe more-or-less created a new character.)

I agree that there's irony in the merchandising juggernaut of the musical and $200 theatre tickets, but...I don't think the 2012 musical movie makes the story dramatically more accessible to lower-income people. There are umpty movie and TV adaptations available on DVD (or YouTube), as well as two DVD versions of the stage musical in concert. There have been film adaptations around for almost a century, and many have been standard public library videotapes and DVDs for decades. It's been licensed for high school and community theatre productions (which are much cheaper than major tour companies or Broadway or the West End) for years now.

And of course the entire 1500-page novel, which is certainly not everyone's cup of tea but which is far more nuanced about poverty, criminal justice and prison reform, and social justice in general than any abbreviated adaptation can be (yes, I'm going to disagree vehemently that Hugo didn't need all those words--while I'm not at all anti-adaptation and don't think everyone needs to love the book, I don't think they'll ever be a substitute for the book, because it's impossible to condense 1500 pages into < 3 hours and not lose a lot), is in the public domain and freely available on the internet, or in cheap paperback form. Abridged, if you don't want all 1500 pages.

The story--even the musical to some degree--has been out there for decades in free or cheaply obtainable ways, not just as expensive theatre tickets. While this movie got more buzz than the last few adaptations, I'm not sure it's really that groundbreaking in terms of making the story more accessible, especially since the musical flattens out some of the major themes pretty dramatically (portraying the revolutionaries as naive and revolution as futile, and losing a lot of the prison reform angle that's still horribly relevant today, for example; for that matter losing most of the nuanced commentary on class and poverty by essentially portraying everyone as either rich or poor).

If you want Javert/Valjean fix-it fic, Archive of Our Own is full of it. The post-Seine AU is a whole subgenre, although there are a few stories that go AU earlier in the timeline (and even, rarely, a fix-it AU with no slash). If you prefer no slash and are okay with adventures being replaced with philosophical debate, I recommend The Resignation of Inspector Javert and The Final Exile of Jean Valjean (skip the slash chapters or not, as you like)--although they're pretty firmly about the book characters, so they might not do it for you.

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