In Prison for Stealing a Loaf of Bread: Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as illustrated in a film by Tom Hooper

By Daniel Garrett

Les Miserables
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Relativity Media/Universal, 2012

With its source in great literature and the most significant themes of liberty and justice and love, its strong characters and stellar cast, its majestic locations, and constant music, Les Miserables seems more like grand opera than a mere musical.  The story and film give us a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, tasked with a hopeless parole that he escapes, a man who takes on a new name and identity, becoming a mayor who is investigated by a relentless policeman.  The convict-mayor neglects his factory and an unwed mother who works there is brutally dispatched by the gossips and a factory supervisor.  The young woman becomes a prostitute, and before she dies the fugitive man agrees to care for her child, who grows into a lovely woman infatuated with a French rebel, a rich boy who throws in with the radical students at the barricades.  It is a very impressive film, though is its length is a challenge.  In theme, time, movement, the story is epic.  It can be hard to feel intimate with characters that are always in song supported by an orchestra, but the actors give compelling performances that draw the viewer closer even as some of the music pushes one away.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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