not in our stars, but in ourselves
I confess: I am a woman of many would-be guilty pleasures. That is to say, there are many things in which I take great pleasure that I know and confirm are trash. Sometimes it’s good, vulgar fun; sometimes it’s what Gogol and others would have called poshlost (and I expect I’ll have much more to say on that particular subject in future posts; for now, content yourself with Vladimir Nabokov’s description thereof: “Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know”). I bet you can guess what category the musical version of Les Mis fits into. I can’t comment on Victor Hugo’s novel, because I myself am a Philistine and have yet to read it, but I can tell you with complete certainty: the musical of Les Mis is poshlost of the first order.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love it. I do, or at least, I can. I’ve seen it once on stage, years and years ago. I went into it expecting a standard stage musical, and was quite surprised that there’s hardly a word in it that isn’t sung. I think I remember not especially liking it as a production, but very much enjoying the songs – poshlosty as they are. Roll your eyes if you must, but I can’t pretend that I don’t cry when Fantine sings, “But there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather.” (I am especially fond of Ruthie Henshall’s version.) And I can’t pretend that my little Daughter of the American Revolutionary heart doesn’t go pitter-pat at “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France!” Usually, I find that I’m entirely content with watching YouTube clips from the 10th anniversary concert performance (although the 25th anniversary does have the distinctly hilarious casting of a Jonas brother as Marius): no plot nonsense, lots of enthusiasm, a choir of blue and white and red t-shirts. That’s about all I want, to be honest.
Nevertheless, I was looking forward to Tom Hooper’s film version. And…I don’t think I was disappointed? It’s hard to say. It did just about exactly what it set out to do: a big, star-studded movie packed to the gills with songs and emotions and epic dramas. If such a film were attempted at the height of the studio era, it would have come from MGM with Garbo as Fantine, maybe Ronald Colman as Valjean, Viv and Larry as Cosette and Marius…you know. Big, glossy, full of sound and fury, etc. And that’s what this is. Many of the performances are quite good. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” in which Fantine sobs and sings in extreme closeup, is quite justifiably singled out in awards-season marketing as a highlight. Hugh Jackman, sporting Wolverine muttonchops and a penitent heart, sure can sing, and his Jean Valjean is a suitable anchor for the sprawling action around him. Russell Crowe is much less terrible as Inspector Javert than I’d feared; while he is outclassed by Jackman as a singer, he’s not outclassed by many others, and he holds his own as an actor – of course. Those three are really the core of the film, and they’re all fine. Of the younger performers, the only real standout was Samantha Barks as Eponine – hardly a surprise, as she has played the role in the West End for years. Eddie Redmayne is adequate as Marius, a better and more convincing singer than revolutionary. The less said about Amanda Seyfried’s singing, the better; one longs for Marni Nixon.
Other than that, I struggle to think of things to say about the film. It’s a handsome production – albeit quite dark, quite often. Characters are often filmed behind bars or fences, which is perhaps a comment on how they’re all prisoners, or perhaps not. There’s a big happy Christian ending, so I think the point is that you’re never a prisoner if you believe in God. I don’t know. Is that how the novel ends? Are the Humbert/Lolita aspects of Valjean’s relationship with Cosette so heavily emphasized in the book? In the stage musical? The audience with which I saw the film – full of musical theatre geeks, judging by the discussions I overheard around me – all dissolved into giggles when Valjean laments losing his Cosette, his comfort in his autumn years, to a hot young student. This reviewer’s eyebrows arched all the way to the back of her head.
If you love Les Mis, the film is well worth seeing. It’s a faithful, mostly well-made copy of the stage version. I enjoyed it just fine, but I think I’ll just stick to my YouTube clips of seventeen Jean Valjeans, singing in overblown concert. Nothing else can compare, really.