Sometimes it is better to know something about the context about a film before watching. Sometimes it is really exciting to have been caught up in the buzz surrounding a new release and sometimes it can be decades of enjoyment and interaction with a story before finally watching it in a new blockbuster format. And sometimes it is better to know nothing at all.
My primary knowledge about Les Mis was from caricatures of ‘80s London city life where yuppie bankers would take clients to the theatre in order to secure multi-million pound contracts on corporate benders. It was apparently the musical of choice for the Square Mile city boys who knew nothing of high culture but needed to spend money fast. For me then, Les Mis was a signifier for gratuitous excess shrouded in an already vastly ironic postmodern political drama.
The story (for those, like me, who are/were unaware) is split into two acts that start in 1825 and follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who stole some bread who is being released on parole, and Javert (Russell Crowe) the ruthless policeman who promises to chase him forever if he dares to break the law again. Their lives intertwine over a number of years and along the way we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory worker who has a daughter named Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) who Valjean promises to look after. In Act II the film culminates in the Paris uprising of 1832 where Cosette has eventually fallen in love with one of the student radicals (Eddie Redmayne) who is helping to man the barricade against the incoming army.
The film is a breathtaking array of set pieces with every main character getting a quiet solo performance that beautifully counteract the loud and energetic ensemble songs that occur during action sequences. Rather than being a film with songs in it, this is a full-blown musical that has been filmed with actors singing live to increase the power of the delivery.
Where Hooper in his last film managed to signal the beginning of the Second World War with a gentle character comedy about a stuttering monarch, in Les Mis he has managed to represent a failed student rebellion that is savagely beaten back by the military as an uplifting love story about redemption and salvation. In both films, explosions of large-scale violence are refocused to explore love and friendship in irrefutably uplifting characters and narratives. Both films seem to remind their audiences that against a backdrop of a crisis, militaristic or financial, it is the actions of kindness and sincerity that are worthy of focus. It seems apt that as the world slowly pulls itself out of a global crisis, a film should emerge that manages to explore capitalism, radicalism, tragedy, abuse and heartache but fill the audience with hope.