“Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”
Les Mis a movie for conservatives?
But let’s first talk about the qualities of the movie apart from political or philosophical points.
The High Points
This is the play in all its glory. And the play is a truncated version of one of the most moving books ever written. All the passion, all the empathy there. You will cry for Fantine. For Eponine. For Gavrouche. For the revolutionary Friends of the ABC. For Javert. And of course for Valjean. Bring tissues this is movie that you will cry at, a lot.
And this movie has a few truly wonderful scenes that supply motivation that was missing in the play. For instance it has Javert arrive on the same day that Fantine is dismissed from her job, which gives a reason for Valjean not taking a more serious interest in her case.
The movie also supplies little moments from the book that were never in the play, like Grantaire standing by Enjolras at the moment of execution.
I think director Tom Hooper created something truly genius with the live singing way this movie was made…however it appears in the early scenes that there was certainly a learning curve involved in using this technique (I wish this wasn’t the first movie to do it so Hooper could have had something to reference). But for any inconsistency it brings up at some moments, it adds deeply to the rest of the film and emotional impact of the songs.
Anne Hathaway deserves an Oscar.
And Russell Crowe’s singing was a pleasant surprise. He added more humanity to Javert than any actor I have previously seen.
The Low Points.
I feel there was a lot that got left on the editing room floor. At 2 hours and 37 minutes this was pushing it for most movies nowadays and I’m pretty sure if all the little things that were taken out were put back in it would be well over 3 hours. And since Hollywood has no intention of returning to the idea of an intermission (to me this makes no sense as most of the money comes from concessions and if there is a break at an hour and a half we would be more willing to buy soda since we wouldn’t have to worry about running out to the rest room and we would buy food at the halfway mark as we would be hungrier by that point…but at least it seems that way, real data I’m not privy to might show otherwise) they were probably forced to make some heavy cuts to the movie. This creates some odd pacing issues, where certain parts feel a little rushed.
Also, and it may be a personal issue that others may not have a problem with, I was not overly impressed by Jackman’s singing. It wasn’t bad, but I’m used to a deeper more sonorous voice for Valjean.
On the technical points, the movie is one of the best of the year, the acting and visual work was spectacular. The editing needs work (or at least a director’s cut DVD…please.) and the directing while exceptional still could have been just a little better (I think the high cost of production may have prevented doing reshoots that other films might have done)…Hooper gets an A not A+.
The Political/Philosophical Points
Did you know this was Ayn Rand’s favorite book? It was. Kind of puts any thoughts that Les Mis is liberal out of the “obviously” category doesn’t it.
Okay let’s look at some of the points. On their own merits.
“I am the master of hundreds of workers, they all look to me. Can I abandon them, how will they live if I am not free. I speak I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned.”
Jean Valjean is a convict, yes. But while that’s all that Javert sees, we’re supposed to see more. We’re supposed to see the successful businessman who not only created a whole industry in a town, bringing it out of poverty and into an economic renaissance, but who also out of Christian charity (not guilt, it should be noted that if you read the book Valjean is motivated by a desire to be a better person, not by guilt about his prior actions) creates hospitals and schools for the poor. In a day and age when lesser writers like Dickens would just recycle the terrible image of the robber baron, Hugo gave us a noble businessman as an example of what others should be. It should also be noted that in a very Atlas Shrugged kind of way, Hugo has no illusions that once Valjean is forced to run the industry and the town is not able to survive in its thriving state without Valjean’s leadership. The book to a great degree, with touches still in the movie, shows that prosperity is driven by captains of industry.
“Take my hand I’ll lead you to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Further it should be noted what a deeply religious story this story is. It is God and the Bishop of Digne, not government that redeems Valjean. God and faith permeate all levels of this story. Faith ironically is what drives both Valjean and Javert. And it never condemns any form of faith, showing that all those fallen (except sadly Javert, whom I’m sure Hugo would have placed there) together in heaven.
The novel, the play, and now the movie praise faith. It’s a rarity these days in serious well produced films. And given the desperate need for spirituality in our modern world, something like this must be embraced.
“Let us die facing our foe […] Let others rise to take our place until the Earth is FREE!”
And dare we forget that much of the second half of the story is taken up by an uprising by Republican revolutionaries, seeking a return to law and not the capricious whims of a king.
“But, but, but” some liberals will complain. The book is about helping the poor, and how unjust the criminal justice system is. Those are liberal issues. And what they fail to realize is that these are different times and different issues. The poor in 19th century France were starving (a problem with accuracy is that even the slums of France look too pretty in this movie…honestly we wouldn’t have felt comfortable actually watching what the “The Miserable” of 19th century France looked like…it wasn’t quite Nazi Concentration Camp, but certainly not as pretty as this film depicts it), the poor in 21st century America are suffering an obesity epidemic. Hugo critiqued those who were lazy and those who felt entitled. Poverty of the kind Hugo witnessed in France was what he wanted us to feel empathy for, modern poverty would not likely bring as much empathy from Victor. And he would be horrified by the lack of the churches and religion in the government welfare that modern liberals champion. And don’t even get me started on the fact that you can’t compare the legal system that punished Valjean for 20 years and hounded him for life for stealing a loaf of bread to our modern system…yes we have problems, but we have the kind of problems Hugo would have only dreamed of.
“Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.”
Of course for me one of the most revealing passages in Les Miserable is when Hugo takes a moment to critique communism.
(It should be noted the terms Socialism and Communism at the time do not have the same meaning now…what he calls Communism would be more in line with modern European Socialism…the term Capitalism was first used in 1854, 8 years before Hugo published Les Miserables—it took him nearly 20 years to write—and its usage as a economic system did not begin until Marx used it in 1867, 5 years after Les Miserables was published. So he could never expect to hear him use the term capitalism even thought that seems to be what he’s calling for. He certainly did not have the term cronyism which describes the economics of 19th century France better than anything. So pay attention to the systems and practices he is referring to, not the titles, as he had no access to the title we currently use.)
“The reader will not be surprised if, for various reasons, we do not here treat in a thorough manner, from the theoretical point of view, the questions raised by socialism. We confine ourselves to indicating them.
All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, reverie and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.
First problem: To produce wealth.
Second problem: To share it.
The first problem contains the question of work.
The second contains the question of salary.
In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.
In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.
From the proper employment of forces results public power.
From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.
By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood. The highest equality is equity.
From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.
Social prosperity means the manhappy, the citizen free, the nation great.
England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.
Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor.
It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides.
It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.
The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one.
Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.”
You will notice he is proposing such things as universal education, due process of law, and property rights. He condemns any attempt for everyone to have their fair and equal share and envying the wealthy. He proposes that people be paid just wages for their work (which was an issue then, not so much now). He proposes to make every man his own master, that everyone may earn wealth. I can’t speak with certainty what political path Hugo would take in the modern world, but I can be fairly certain that if a modern day liberal went back to see him, Hugo would try to slap the stupid out of the Occupy trash. I can also be mildly sure that Hugo might encourage the building of a few barricades against some of the government overreaches of the modern world.
All in all, the story is one of the value of liberty, of the individual, of redemption through works and of God. Those are conservative themes if I ever heard them.
“Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the Earth there is a flame that never dies,
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
We will live again in Freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plowshares. We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing, say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring when tomorrow comes!”