“Think you’re poor, think you’re free? Follow me. Follow me!” It’s stirring words such as these, aimed at rabble rousing an audience which probably contains more wannabe peasants than real ones, that has made Les Misérables one of the most successful stage musicals ever. Even if your ticket cost £85 and you lost track of the story after Jean Valjean transformed from a convict to a factory owner (or is it mayor?), who can resist a giant red flag swooshing across a revolving stage and a group of angry people dying on a barricade for something they believe in?
If your idea of rebellion is refusing to put the bins out on Tuesdays, Les Misérables allows you to imagine, for three hours, what it might be like to be a part of a proper revolution – one sufficiently far back in history to be glamourous and glorious, dazzling and heroic, rather than, say, a worrying interruption to a holiday in Egypt.
Now it’s a film, so even more people can see it. That’s democracy for you. The thing everyone seems to say about it is that Russell Crowe’s singing is bad. I’ve never really liked Russell Crowe, but was expecting his singing to be so dreadful that it actually sounded OK. Yes, he’s stoic and brick-like (isn’t he always?) but so is Jarvert, the dogmatic policeman he plays who is on a mission to thwart Hugh Jackman’s infinitely richer Valjean.
Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-nominated Fantine spends most of her brief appearance crying to camera. While this is initially moving, once two or three more characters have deployed the same technique, you begin to think there are only so many tears and so much snot one movie can take.
Most of the best stuff – Javert and Valjean’s sing-offs, the uprising and great songs such as “At the End of the Day”, “Master of the House” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” – happen in act one or at the beginning of act two. This has always been the problem with Les Misérables – the second part of act two is relatively dull. Who cares about sappy lovers Cosette and Marius when there’s a revolution going on? The sassy and tragic Eponine, who disguises herself as a man, or the charismatic leader of the mob, Enjolras, are much more interesting. Unfortunately, after the barricade is stormed, they are also much more dead.
I’ve always wondered if the pretty downbeat final part of the musical – the portion people invariably complain about being “too miserable” – is a deliberate attempt to make the ending, where everyone comes back from the dead as ghosts, all the more uplifting. The revolution has failed on this occasion, but look! Everyone’s not really corpses impaled on broken furniture. See, sacrificing yourself for a cause is worth it after all, even if it might not seem like it at the time.
Les Misérables isn’t about being miserable, it’s about being free – free to love who you want (Cosette and Marius), free from the ruling classes (Enjolras and the revolutionaries), free from your past (Jean Valjean) and free from your job (Javert). Pretty much all of the characters can only achieve freedom by dying for it – something that always feels noble, at least in dramas.