Socialist Worker

Les Miserables: A cry for the wretched to revolt comes to musical life

A classic tale of love, loss and revolution set in 19th century France, Les Miserables makes a big impact on the big screen, writes Andrea Butcher

Issue No. 2337

Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman}

Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman}

There’s a reason why over 60 million people have seen the musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables at the theatre. It’s a story about love and loss but also hope and rebellion.

It is set against a backdrop of the unsuccessful anti-royalist 1832 uprising in Paris led by students.

The new film captures some of this.

Anne Hathaway is genuinely moving as the abandoned single mother Fantine trying to pay for the upkeep of her daughter, Cosette.

Even at her lowest point she finds the strength to lash out at a rich man who abuses her.

Her desperation and misery shocks. And when she sings I Dreamed a Dream all visions of Susan Boyle and Britain’s Got Talent are banished.

The character of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is more complex.

Released after 19 years imprisonment for stealing bread, his parole conditions condemn him to poverty.

So he disappears and re-emerges as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Quite how he does this is not fully explained, but a bag stuffed full of stolen church silver can’t hurt.

He owns the factory which sacked Fantine, driving her to prostitution and death.

Recognising his role in her downfall, Valjean pledges to care for her daughter. But the pair are chased by Javert (Russell Crowe), a police officer intent on bringing Valjean to justice.


Years later they all wind up in Paris just as the 1832 June Rebellion is fermenting. Unfortunately Javert is more an angst-ridden Dixon of Dock Green than ruthless arm of the state.

The young student revolutionaries in this film are not the most inspiring.

But the audience is left rooting for the revolution. It’s the red flag that’s raised high and there is no doubt where Hugo’s sympathies lie.

There are hints of the battles to come in 1848. The women cleaning up blood in the streets after the rebellion are bitterly angry about the murdered students.

Hugo’s world is populated by the wretched and the marginalised. Women are at the heart of it. Individuals react very differently to their experience of oppression.

There is little solidarity in the factory where Fantine works. But Eponine, who grows up with Cosette, revolts against her personal tragedy by fighting on the barricades disguised as a man.

The film also has its lighter moments. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the corrupt innkeepers paid to look after the young Cosette.

The church is portrayed uncritically. Hugo’s beliefs were different. When he died in 1885 he asked for the following statements to be published, “I leave 50,000 francs to the poor” and “I refuse orations of all churches”. Over two million people came to pay their respects.

Did I cry? Not going to tell you. But it did it make me want to go back and read the book.

Les Miserables

Directed by Tom Hooper

On release now

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