The new Les Miserables is a breathtaking achievement. It captures the full sweep and grandeur of Hugo’s novel. It convincingly translates a production originally written for the stage into a motion-picture production (often a hard thing to do). The directing is brilliant—a perfect combination of realism and romanticism that gives real life to Hugo’s message. And the performances are stunning. It would be an injustice if Anne Hathaway does not get the Oscar for her performance as Fantine. Her “I Dreamed A Dream” is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in any movie, ever. No, the movie isn’t perfect—Russell Crowe’s singing is a bit weak (though his acting is fine) and there are some scenes that do not quite succeed (Marius’ return home is very short and hard to follow). But the flaws are miniscule in a film that otherwise is positively stunning.
Les Miserables is one of the greatest achievements of nineteenth century romantic literature, which means, a literature about values and moral choices. It is about whether people can change, about what it means to remain loyal to your values in the face of overwhelming odds, about what it means to redeem yourself after you and your forefathers have committed terrible wrongs. It’s a novel about the interactions of justice and mercy, about revolution and transcending your past. It is one of the great masterpieces of a kind of art rarely seen today—an art that takes values seriously, and in which the characters take themselves and their ideas seriously. The musical, and this film, manage to convey that kind of idealism without a trace of the sarcasm, self-deprecation, shrugging, or ridicule that is typical of today’s films. It believes in itself in the way that each of us ought to believe in ourselves, and that, when we work hard enough, we sometimes manage to deserve. It has not learned the skill of derogating its own highest values.
Unsurprisingly, the critics—all much too sophisticated to believe in things—are falling all over themselves to sneer and roll their eyes. The Huffington Post’s critic, who has never read the novel and proudly declares that he won’t, calls it “the kind of middlebrow melodrama that passes for profound on Broadway.” He never quite tells us why a story about the most important parts of living—one’s dedication to those high values that make life worthwhile—is anything short of profound. He just ridicules the “wrung out” feeling the audience experiences as being “the point.” I guess that’s his way of saying that we should not take things like admiration, longing, joy, love, and redemption too seriously. The Arizona Republic’s reviewer is even more snide. He at least recognizes that the story is one of “humanity and depravity” and “law and its trickier cousin, justice.” But...well, that’s fine if you go for that sort of thing. “How much you enjoy the film is going to depend greatly on your capacity for having these ideas pounded against your head, time and again.” Notice that the alleged flaw in the film is that it is about truly crucial values, and treats them as crucial. I guess we’re supposed to prefer small, petty, and pointless, to enormous, idealistic, and important.
Hugo is not dated today because there is nothing so radical as the art of ideas, an art that contemporary intellectuals do their best to shove under the couch. In a world where critics praise the trivial, the bizarre, the nihilistic, the anti-life, the plainly stupid, I am happy to cast my lot in with the movie-goers who still know how to cry at tragedy and celebrate triumph.
I suppose there will always be people who can bring themselves to scoff, for whatever reason, at the profundity and seriousness of Les Miserables. But to do so in the face of these performances is especially shameful. Hathaway’s Fantine is something like I have never seen in a film. There are just no words for it. And when artists like Victor Hugo, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Tom Hooper, and Anne Hathaway are able to express the universal human commitments that the audience members rightly take with such seriousness—to give those values a voice and an expression that will stay with them for the rest of their lives—which people will leave the theater thinking about for days and years afterwards—when a group of artists is able to personally touch the hearts of millions of people, for the right reasons, and to give them the gift of expressing something true and genuine and to make their hearts soar—that is what truly great art aspires to. And it is something that deserves our thanks and praise—not sneering by the ants too tiny to recognize the sculpture on the base of which they crawl.
To Hell with small critics with small ideas. This film is a superlative accomplishment. If “high brow” means to look down, I will stay with the “middle brows” who can still enjoy looking up. Hugo’s novel, and this faithful adaptation of it, are about the Most Important Things. Go see it.