Les Miserables: What the Critics got Wrong and Why You can’t Trust Them

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Anne Hathaway as the most convincing Fantine since Ruthie Henshall

Although this blog has been dedicated towards the production of literary criticism and articles on literary trends, I feel it necessary to address the film Les Miserables, if for no better reason than to save the film from the shallow perspectives of its critics.

I’ve developed a rather useful rule of thumb for judging bad criticism—the grosser and cleverer hyperbole, the worse the review. This is because critics tackling a big project like Les Miserables want to separate their perspectives from the countless others that laud its praises. The problem is that these new perspectives are hackneyed, poorly substantiated, and clever for the sake of clever.

Take for example Anthony Lane’s review in the January 7 edition of the New Yorker. Half of the piece is dedicated towards a summarization of the story, which seems hardly necessary. Hugo’s gothic opus is about the travails and the eventual salvation of the downtrodden. Add to that a dash of forbidden romance and a revolution, and you have your story. And it certainly didn’t take half the piece.

Lane proceeds to pass sentence on most of the film’s bombast, sparing only Hathaway, Redmayne, and Cohen, and then ends with this cheeky coda: “I screamed a scream as time went by.” Let’s examine this parting blow briefly. Is Lane suggesting a scream of frustration? Perhaps one of pain or mania, or excruciating boredom? For the sake of brevity, let’s say that the answer is for all of the above, which brings us to our next question: what is he so pissed off about?

The music, he answers, is harmonic and predictable. It doesn’t jump or careen about the score or dip into the minors, and it seems to be for these reasons that Lane means his “harmonic and predictable” to be read as insipid.

I for one certainly agree with him about the harmonic and predictable bits, although for what I consider to be the right reasons. Hugo’s characters are harmonic and predictable: Jean Valjean is as pure as an unmuddied stream, Enjolras and Marius as noble as nobility itself, and Fantine makes a gorgeous corpse when she finally succumbs to cruel life. In this way the music very accurately reflects its source material.

Hugo doesn’t engage in character complexity because Les Miserables is not driven by character, but by the wheel of fate, the one that drives all pitiful folk to salvation. There’s no suspense when the barricade falls and all those young men are killed. They’ve been doomed from the start, by God and youthful impertinence. What Hugo gives them is their glory.

Likewise, we know that the young and dashing Marius would sooner choose his friends and their bloody demise over the life with Cosette. Character decrees that Marius be noble, and so Marius is noble. There’s no indecision; no complex emotional trauma or contradictory feelings. That would be dipping into the minor key. Marius, Valjean, Enjolras; the whole lot of them remain harmonic and stable. What Claude-Michel Schönberg (who wrote the music) gives the characters are not complex arias and musical density, but simple tunes to be belted with dynamic intensity: bombast, Lane writes scathingly.  Indeed it is, but I certainly have no problem with it.

What do I have problems with? Maybe one of you is asking this. To you, I answer: critics attempting difference for the sake of difference. Of course, we appreciate multiple perspectives so long as those perspectives don’t detract from the piece itself. Doing so is like looking at a mountain through the lenses of binoculars which have been smudged with mud: the object is still there but the grandeur is gone.

While every mole and nose hair of director Tom Hooper’s film has been noted and ripped apart by the critics, none of these illustrious movie buffs have even addressed the fact that Les Miserables, for all its purported flaws, is groundbreaking. Never before have the pieces of a musical stepped off of the stage so effectively. When Hathaway dreams her dream, there’s only a ghost of performance behind her words. All else seems natural expression. The music has achieved ubiquity.

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Daniel Huttlestone as Petit Gavroche, another brilliant and critically neglected performance

But of course this was one of the first things the critics were sure to lambast. Too many heads, they and many others have said. It’s a close film, though I prefer to label that closeness as a sort of intimacy. What’s more is that Hooper takes us out of the Bird’s Eye perspective because he’s collecting the facial emotions that are developing through song. Hathaway’s quivering lips and Redmayne’s grief-sunken eyes when he delivers “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” are worth much more to the film than some more picturesque shots of Paris. So are for that matter, Samantha Barks’s palpable despair during “On My Own,” and a personal favourite, Aaron Tveit, who plays Enjolras and counterbalances excellently the other members of the Red and Black Café with his poise and coolness.

We’re all entitled to our own opinions, or so the bromide reads. Indeed we are, just as we are entitled to our lives and our liberties and our pursuits of happiness. What you do with your entitlements is another thing entirely. If you prefer to spend your opinions on contemptuous drivel and self-affirming pomp, well, that is your own business. I’ll be here to see to it that your pieces are stripped of any validity you thought they carried. And art? The art that you so mercilessly and distastefully lampooned?

Art couldn’t care less about you.

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