Can I teach you to love, to really love? Having just borne witness to Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel set in post-revolutionary France, I’m almost evangelical. You must see this film. Your soul will thank you for it.
I first saw Les Misérables at the age of nine when a local amateur dramatics group to which my dad belonged decided to put on its own shoe-string production in the parish hall. Prostitution, rape, unrequited love and revolutionary politics might not sound like themes particularly fitting for a parish hall, but perhaps that’s where the appeal began for me. I felt so grown up.
Prevented from treading the boards myself by two well-meaning parents concerned that my fractions would suffer, I nevertheless made it to a few rehearsals to watch Les Mis in progress. My best friend had landed herself the pretty jammy role of the child Cosette, whose poverty-stricken face might not now be out of place in Cameron’s Britain. Her mum was given the role of the unfortunate Fantine and mother to Cosette, which to my nine-year-old self consisted mainly of singing in bed a lot. Gavroche, meanwhile, was hot stuff (this Artful Dodger of the barricade even had a full solo).
Most of all, though, I wanted to be Éponine. Éponine is daughter of the Thénardiers, a family that would be lucky to escape the reach of today’s social services, not to mention environmental health officers (see Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s rendition of “Master of the House” for full details.) Ragged, independent and street-wise, Éponine is in love with the revolutionary student Marius, who, much to her chagrin, is besotted with the seemingly more innocent and virtuous Cosette. Éponine, though, won hands down for me. I recall a holiday in Paris around the same time where I engaged in some decidedly Éponine-esque anti-social flânerie. Baudelaire’s city full of dreams was definitely mine for the taking.
Throughout my childhood, Les Mis became a small but entirely healthy obsession that I cultivated with some gusto. I devoured the script, knew all the words and listened over and over to the score until my cassettes grew old and tired. I even used some of the songs in productions I put on with my friends, rewriting lyrics to fit new themes, one memorable down-and-out musical of ours entitled “Chrissie and the girl behind the dustbins”.
A Christmas after my initiation, I got tickets to Shaftesbury Avenue to see the London Cast perform at the Palace Theatre. In 1995 the London Cast’s 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall was broadcast live on Radio 3. The shivers still run down my spine when I think of Lea Salonga’s utterly cathartic rendition of On My Own which in my mind remains unmatched to this day. My degree in French afforded me a year in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, barely a stone’s throw from the town of Digne. This is the setting for Hugo’s epiphany-stirring meeting between Jean Valjean and a kindly clergyman which sets him on the path of redemption. Valjean (played to great effect by Hugh Jackman in the film) has just served a 19 year prison sentence in Toulon for stealing a loaf of bread.
What can I tell you about Tom Hooper’s offering? I feel unqualified to say too much given my fully declared bias in this article. What I can say is this: Russell Crowe, as the embittered Inspector Javert, makes the role truly his own. Anne Hathaway won me over, entirely unexpectedly, in her portrayal of Fantine. The characters Marius and Cosette (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) are a little dull, but that isn’t their fault – their love story simply isn’t an important theme in the narrative. Samantha Barks puts in a fine effort as Éponine, but I’m not sure she can ever really be done justice in my eyes. Gavroche and the revolutionaries of the barricade are all très bien, merci. Enough said.
My conclusion? The musical creators of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, can sleep soundly. Aux barricades, immédiatement! And to a cinema near you.