Reflections on Les Misérables

By M. Gowlett, guest author

Musicals may not spring to mind as being period dramas, but in the case of the 2012 musical film Les Misérables, being set in the period of great social upheaval in France in the early years of the 19th century and involving high drama indeed, I feel justified in including this one in the category.

Of course, Les Misérables has not always been a musical – it began as an amazing book written by the French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo published in 1862; has developed through an estimated 47,000 stage performances, and at least 10 filmed versions from 1934 onwards; was set to music by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil and opened as a musical in Paris in 1880, then in 1985 as an English-language musical production by Cameron Mackintosh in London’s West End. It premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican Theatre, where it was actually not so well received by the critics, but certainly was by the public and by Princess Diana who said it was the best show she had ever seen. It has now been translated into 21 languages, shown in 300 cities in 42 countries, and is the 2nd longest-running show in London’s West End, second only to The Mousetrap which opened in 1952 – that’s some head start!

Then we come to the new award winning musical drama film Les Misérables of 2012, directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech), scripted by William Nicholson, incorporating Schönberg and Boublil’s songs but with additional music that they created specially for the film together with Herbert Kretzmer and starring an array of super talented actors, headed by Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Oscar-winning Anne Hathaway (alias: Jane Austen from Becoming Jane) and Amanda Seyfried. The director made the brave decision to have his actors sing all their lines live on set (see the featurette on the right for more information), whereby the songs flow like dialogue and sound perfectly natural – a decision that well paid off – brilliant! We knew that Amanda Seyfried could sing from Mamma Mia, but some of the others were a very pleasant surprise! The film also incorporated a beautiful totally new purpose-written song, ‘Suddenly’ which Hugh Jackman sings in a taxi en route to Paris to take up a new reformed lifestyle as an adoptive father.

At this stage I think I should give a brief rundown on the storyline, although I’m sure you all know it – I’ll try to be brief! Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread because his sister and her children were starving, for which he served 19 years in jail/hard labour/slavery, before being released on parole. At the start of our story in 1815, we see him using his great physical strength to lift a heavy oar pinning down one of his fellow prisoners, an act of kindness which is observed by Javert, the prison guard supervising the release, who vows that prisoner 24601 (Valjean) will never be free. Valjean steals silver from a bishop, who when confronted by the police says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift, and insists on giving him more. Deeply touched by the bishop’s love and kindness, Valjean decides to break parole and start a new life doing good for people. Eight years later we see him having achieved this and having built himself a new respectable life: he is now Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a wealthy but kind factory owner. One day, he witnesses the desperation of a poor girl, Fantine, who has been dismissed from his factory by a foreman and has had to resort to prostitution and to selling her hair to raise money to pay an unscrupulous landlord and landlady of an inn to take care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine lies dying, Valjean promises to take care of Cosette as a father, which he does (after managing to pay off the innkeepers) with great paternal love. He has witnessed the injustice of the society around him, and takes the side of the revolutionaries who are fighting for change. In 1832, on the death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque, the only government official to have sympathy for the poor, the rebels decide to take a stand against the government and build and defend a giant barricade. Along the way, one of the student revolutionaries, Marius, has met Cosette and they have fallen in love. To cut a long story short, Valjean manages dramatically to rescue Marius from the barricade, after poor Eponine (daughter of the innkeepers) has sacrificed her life out of unrequited love, to save him, and just before the whole group of rebels, having decided to fight to the death, are annihilated by canon fire of the National Guard. I haven’t mentioned that along the way, Valjean has various skirmishes with Javert, who has become a police inspector obsessed with catching up with him. Valjean escapes each time, but in the end, when given the chance to execute Javert, he fakes the execution and lets him go free; an act of kindness incomprehensible to Javert, but leading him in the end to take his own life by plunging into the Seine. The story has a ‘happy’ ending for Marius and Cosette who later marry, but there is so much unhappiness and tragedy, that we are left in tears anyway.

Les Misérables
(2012) DVDs

Amazon U.K.
Amazon U.S.

The 2012 film is so very well done, giving us, as the medium of film can, such a close-up, personal view of the emotional and tragic circumstances and events, that I think everyone in the cinema must have been in tears! The shocked silence that accompanied the long credits at the end was also a mark of respect. Just a few months before seeing the film, I had finally seen the musical stage show in London with Jeronimo Rauch as Jean Valjean and Tam Mutu as Javert, and had been very highly impressed - my husband had been raving about Les Misérables for so many years after seeing a production in New York that it was high time I saw it. I enjoyed both the stage show and the movie very much indeed, and found the movie just so sad but awesome, partly because of the intimacy of film!

Continuing my reflections on the story, I’d like to go back to the book. Victor Hugo (1802 – 1882) grew up in Paris during the period his story is set, so experienced the drama of events taking place at first-hand. These were turbulent times in France, when the general population was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the incompetence of the monarchy, religious authority and the privileges and decadence of the aristocracy, whilst the poor were suffering devastating poverty and degradation. The uprising of the angry and frustrated under-privileged started with the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789 and within just three years the absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed and King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. The first French Republic was proclaimed in September 1792 with Napoleon Bonaparte declaring himself as Emperor –Louis-Charles, the young son of Louis XVI was supposedly King Louis XVII at the time but was in fact being held prisoner till his death on June the 8th 1795, whereupon his uncle Louis-Stanislas (Louis XVI’s brother and grandson of Louis XV) claimed to be King Louis XVIII, but the power stayed with Napoleon. Four years into the Revolution, the people were frustrated that they could see no improvement, and in September ‘93 a horrific period of slaughter known as The Reign of Terror began, during which up to 40,000 ‘upper class’ people were guillotined – the Jacobins and Maximilien Robespierre are the names most associated with these events, though Robespierre himself also lost his head to the guillotine in the end. The French Revolution itself is said to have lasted from 1789 to 1799, but the period of political and social upheaval whilst the poor suffered and the revolutionaries fought for their rights that started in 1789, in fact, also spanned the 1st half of the 19th century. This is a very complicated period of French history, so it’s probably most unwise for a non-historian like myself to delve into it, but still, I will try to put the story Les Misérables in context!

When Victor Hugo was just 2 years old, in 1804, Napoleon officially became Emperor of the French, sometimes considered the first constitutional ‘monarch’, the post he held (with just a brief period of exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba from April 1814 till he escaped in March 1815, during which time Louis-Stanislas actually did become King Louis XVIII) till defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 1815 after just 100 days back in power. He was then permanently exiled to the far-away island of Saint Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1821. During Napoleon I’s time as Emperor he fought various Napoleonic Wars spreading his power over much of Europe, and in fact made lots of social reforms improving the human rights and introducing voting for all men in France, till his attempt to invade Russia turned the tide against him.

Back in France in 1815 at the start of our story, after just a 2-week attempt of Napoleon I’s son as Napoleon II, the House of Bourbon monarchy is restored in the person of King Louis XVIII again till 1824, followed by his brother Charles X till July 1830 when his repressive regime and disregard for the poor resulted in his removal during the July Revolution. The following, and last king of France, Louis-Philippe, a 6th generation descendent of Louis XIII, managed to stay on the throne, despite more uprisings such as that of 1832 (the final backdrop to Les Misérables) till 1848. This was because he was a little more popular than his predecessors; he called himself the Citizen King of the French (rather than King of France): a constitutional king linked to the people and with a parliament. He claimed to have sympathy with the liberated citizens of his country and did away with a lot of royal privileges, but still the gap between rich and poor increased and the living standards of the workers deteriorated, till the people revolted against their king once again in 1848. Louis-Philippe abdicated in favour of his grandson, who might have become a Louis-Phillipe II, but partly because of his refusal to accept the tricolore (adopted and worn as a rosette by the revolutionaries) as the flag of France, preferring the white royalist one, he never came to the throne and we finally see the end of the royal monarchy and the setting up of the 2nd French Republic with Louis Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I) as the first president of the French republic – he was still called Emperor of the French, so in a way he was the last ‘monarch’. As to whether social justice improved vastly then; well that’s another story.

Victor Hugo took the writing of his novel very seriously and spent a long time over it as he felt very strongly about social justice and human degradation and rights. He considered that he was addressing the same issues in other European countries, such as Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany, and hoped that his book could have a good influence on them. The critics’ response to his book at the time was varied; a lot of it negative as some parties didn’t want to know about social problems and considered him over-sympathetic to the revolutionaries. However, commercially, the book was a great success and has remained so ever since it was published.

Returning to the subject of monarchy: the kings and queens of European countries are all intermingled, with battles and marriages swapping power from country to country – intricate and fascinating, but far too big a topic for me to tackle! However, I am interested to speculate on the reasons why the British monarchy survived whilst the French didn’t. I should think it may be partly due to the fact that a constitutional style of monarchy (with much reduced power compared with the absolute version) co-existing with a parliament representing the people was introduced much earlier in Britain.

Oliver Cromwell, a staunch puritan/protestant with strong anti-catholic views (highly controversial in Ireland!) was a key figure in promoting the power of parliament and diminishing that of royalty. He played an important role in the English Civil Wars between Parliamentarians and Royalists that started in 1642 and lead to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 – Cromwell was one of the first to sign the death warrant! A republic was declared known as the Commonwealth of England, which lasted till 1660, during which time Cromwell was Head of State as Lord Protector (he was offered the crown, but refused) from 1653 till he died of kidney problems in 1658, only to be exhumed and posthumously hung for treason three years later, after the restoration of the monarchy in the form of Charles II in 1660. During this interregnum period, Cromwell was instrumental in building up a government system with a proper elected parliament for England, Ireland and Scotland, but he took on more and more royal trappings for himself yet was a hard puritanical leader for the people, such that when Charles returned from exile in Holland, he was welcomed and was a popular king, nicknamed the ‘Merry Monarch’ as he allowed theatres which had been closed since the beginning of the Civil War to re-open and encouraged the arts and science.

Unfortunately, Charles was never able to produce a legitimate child as an heir (though plenty of illegitimate ones) so on his death in 1685, his brother James who was an ardent Roman Catholic convert succeeded to the throne as James II. James’s Catholicism became the cause of increasing unrest, especially so when his 2nd wife (a Catholic) produced a male heir, displacing his two daughters from his first Protestant wife, and in 1688, William, a sovereign Prince of Orange of the the House of Orange-Nassau of Holland was actually invited by British Protestants and Parliamentarians to invade Britain and overthrow James II. William invaded and James fled, after which William together with his wife Mary (actually James’s daughter) became joint protestant monarchs as William III and Mary II – ‘William and Mary’, a well-known duo. This established that the British Monarchy was to be protestant - though not really officially till the Act of Settlement of 1701, which still stands today, despite having been started by Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1536. It was also the beginning of Constitutional Monarchy in England with Parliament established as an official institution and doing the real governing, as opposed to ‘parliaments’ dating back to 1066 after the Norman conquest by William II, which were really just a group of earls, barons, bishops and abbots who were called to talk (French – parler – hence parliament) but no doubt in those days the king always got his own way anyway!

A more recent boost to the British monarchy came right at the end of the 19th century when a certain Princess ‘May’ of Teck married Prince George instead of his elder brother Prince Albert Victor, known as ‘Eddy’ who died of pneumonia in 1892. ‘Eddy’ was heir to the throne and on his death, George inherited not only the throne, but also Eddy’s fiancée May, and in 1910 when his father King Edward VII died, they became King George V and Queen Mary. They were a couple who took their duties, and in fact the role of the monarchy extremely seriously, much more so than Eddy would have done. The beginning of the 20th century was a tense time in history with industrial relations problems, strikes and the struggle of the Suffragettes in Britain, but most especially, the looming conflict in Europe, which led to World War I. Mary was a very intelligent woman who gave her husband very wise advice; especially during the war years, they worked tirelessly at supporting their subjects, in particular the poorer ones and the soldiers; Mary organised women to knit and sew and send off parcels of warm textiles to the battle front, among other things. They cared for their subjects and the monarchy rather at the expense of their family: George felt he couldn’t offer shelter to his cousin, the last tsar of Russia Nicholas II, who was subsequently executed along with his whole family by the Bolsheviks; and his sons also didn’t receive much loving support, maybe with consequences; elder son Edward who would go on to abdicate the throne in favour of his true love Mrs Simpson, and younger son George who would become a very nervous but very good King George VI (as in ‘The King’s Speech’). George V, till his death in 1936, but more especially Mary, till her death in 1953, just 10 weeks before her granddaughter Princess Elizabeth (whom she had instilled with her own strong sense of royal duty) was crowned Queen Elizabeth II, together made a tremendous contribution to the survival of the British monarchy. The affection for Queen Elizabeth II displayed at her Diamond Jubilee, after 60 years on the throne, shows she has stood the test of time and her successors seem secure.

1978 version

Just one last point about the stealing of the loaf of bread: when I watched the non-musical 1978 film version of Les Misérables with Anthony Perkins as a grim Javert, I was so struck by how terrible it was that a man should receive such very harsh treatment for stealing a loaf of bread to save his family from starving to death. Tragically, there are still people starving like this, and it makes me reflect that while there are people starving, we can never have a happy peaceful world. Men whose families are starving can not be expected to just put up with it, but will rebel and cause revolutions such as the Russian Revolution where the normal people rose up against Tsar Nicholas II, protesting against the decadence of the aristocracy and the severe shortage of food; the women joining in shouting “Give us Bread!” after being constantly sent home from bread queues empty-handed. The soldiers were starving too, so many of them refused to obey the Tsar’s orders to fight and even shoot rebels, leading finally to the Bolsheviks under Lenin signing the peace Treaty of Brest-Litovst in March 1918 to end the war with Germany, and ultimately leading to the creation of the USSR.

At the moment we have financial crises in countries all over the world. Thankfully, the people in many of these countries are a good step above starvation, but if the family’s income is barely enough to feed itself with nothing left over to spend on other things, the other things will go out of business, workers will lose their jobs (if they were lucky enough to have one) dissatisfaction amongst the people will escalate and the economy of the country will suffer – a vicious circle, and it all comes down to the humble loaf of bread!

I called my article ‘Reflections on Les Misérables’ and I think I’ve reflected quite long enough, probably making some blunders in my history along the way; please feel free to correct me if you find any, and well done for plodding through to the end! I really enjoyed the 2012 ‘period drama’ musical movie, Les Misérables, great acting, scenery, script and music, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

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