Love IS the revolution – the only one that sticks, anyway. That’s the message I got from seeing Les Miserables yesterday, and I may never recover. In fact, I hope I don’t.
It is important to note that my experience with this film results in part from several elements of bias, the greatest of which being that I was a Les Mis virgin going into it. I had never seen it live or on PBS, never heard any of the songs, and only made it through about fifty pages of the novel (which means I had read the encounter between Jean Valjean and the Monsignor, so maybe that makes me a Les Mis first-baser). It only follows, therefore, that I would be blown away by the themes and characters, as they were all new and unformed in my expectations.
In addition, I am a longstanding fan of Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, and Russell Crowe, rendering me automatically receptive to their performances. I absolutely do not see what the big gripe is with Russell Crowe in this movie. I mean, okay, he’s no Michael Crawford, but the acting! His unswerving devotion to the character and the relentless steely glint in his eyes! And yet, he was engaging enough that I yearned for his redemption in the end; how many actors can give so much in such limited screen time and in such a detestable role?
Then again, I am not one to keep films beholden to their stage or television counterparts. Each is such a different medium from the others, it’s impossible to generate the same responses from the same components because the economy of movement and sound diverges so greatly. Tom Hooper and company were not obliged to equal Les Miserables the stage musical or even, necessarily, to make the fans happy. Rather, they made the best film adaptation they could, requiring the work of an experienced, bankable, film-ready cast and crew. The results are extraordinary, and yes, I am sure that not a few Oscar nominations will result.
All of this is academic, though, and not the point at all. Les Miserables in any format is all about love. It is inspired that Victor Hugo set the story against the backdrop of the French Revolution and its lingering effects because it demonstrates that the greatest exploits – war, revolt, assassination – affect our circumstances in immediately visible ways, but they rarely if ever bring true change or satisfaction. On the other hand, the smallest unseen deeds change us in our souls, enabling us to change our stories and the fates of others. True power, then, is not in weapons or uprisings or political appointments, but rather in forgiveness and generosity and sacrifice. What a powerful reminder.
These observations are probably screamingly obvious to the average Les Mis fan, but they rocked me. I cried with Jean Valjean as he resolved to begin his story anew. I cried for Fantine and the injustice dealt her simply because of her gender and station. I cried over Javert’s blindness and his inability to forgive himself in the end.
Most of all, I cried over the blood in the streets, both seen and unseen. There’s the conspicuous blood of the fallen idealistic crusaders, eagerly forfeiting their lives for freedom and hope, but there’s also bleeding and death in the invisible realms that I fail to discern in my comfort and busyness. I lost it completely when the people sang:
Look down and see the beggars at your feet,
Look down and show some mercy if you can,
Look down and see the sweepings of the street,
Look down, look down upon your fellow man!
When’s it gonna end? When we gonna live?
Something’s gotta happen now or something’s gonna give…
I live in a land that we call “blessed” enough not to encounter this kind of desperation naked in my streets, but it is real. The masses continue to cry and beg and bleed, and I continue to divert myself – even calling it looking up! – and believe I have problems enough to justify non-involvement.
Sometimes – usually in time of crisis or major elections – I am just engaged enough to join with the rebellious youth who cried out, “Where the leaders of the land? Where are the swells who run this show?” And there is some truth to holding our leaders accountable for poor management and direction, but their failings do not absolve me of my inaction.
If all of this seems a bit heavy for a $10 ticket and an afternoon’s diversion at the cinema, then you will hate Les Miserables, and that’s okay. It’s not for everyone. See something else and be blessed.
Yet I do implore all of us, especially in this season of sharing and new beginnings, please take some time to actively see the people around us. Note the suffering – be it as great as mortal poverty or as simple as desperate but muted loneliness – and reach out in whatever ways you can to help alleviate it. Comfort a mind, soothe a heart, change a story.
Please – look down.
originally posted on the write naked blog, 12/29/12