Sunday, January 20, 2013

Romance of the barricades in 19th century Paris: Tom Hooper-directed Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables as seen in the movies is the fatal mortal/moral combat between Jean Valjean,a heroic man by virtue of his physical as well as his ethical strength, and Javert, the equally ethical if blinkered police inspector. Javert chases Valjean till the end through a turbulent political episode in Paris. In Tom Hooper's version, the street uprising assumes a larger role and the battle of Valjean and Javert is made part of a larger fight. This was not how Hugo's novel was interpreted in the 1999 version of the movie in which Liam Neeson played Valjean, Uma Thurman played Fantine and the role of her daughter Cosette was played by the angelic Clair Danes. The film was directed brilliantly by Bille August of Denmark. In the musical, Anne Hathaway plays Fantine, Amanda Seyfried the role of Cosette and Samantha Barks that of Eponine. Hooper indulges in melodrama, which is part of the Hugo story and plays up the street rebellion much more. The songs and music contribute in highlighting this.
Hugo's Paris is politically burning as it has through most of the 19th century. So, Hooper's choice to make the Paris event a little larger in the musical does not seem to be out of place. And no one confuses it with the 1789 French Revolution as bemoaned by the reviewer in The Guardian newspaper of England. Claude-Michel Schonberg's music and Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics play up the melodrama much more than ever before and that is what makes this musical so enjoyable. And director Tom Hooper can defend his decision to focus on the street and politics as being legitimate Hugo. In the end, it is the tale of Valjean that prevails and the dead youth at the barricades are dropped away without much ceremony as it were. But while the song and music hold sway and street rebellion with its emblematic barricades fills up the frame, nothing else holds your attention. In many ways, Hooper's musical shows that Hugo's canvas was rather broad and he deals with much more than the personal tale of Valjean and Javert. He takes in the whole of Paris.
The songs are sentimental as they should be and though the music is not always of the rhapsodic intensity and it falls flat at a number of places, it does not flag for too long and picks up the momentum. What holds the song and music is the strength of Hugo's depiction of Paris and its inhabitants much like Dickens' 19th century London. Hooper touches an inner chord and the mood of the time rather convincingly. Hugh Jackman as Valjean is brilliant and Anne Hathaway is quite overwhelming. A brilliant performance is that of Samantha Barks playing Eponine with much conviction.

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