The Wretched’s Wail: Les Miserables Film Review
By Danica Maloles
“Here’s the thing about equality, everyone’s equal when they’re dead.” is one of the many lines in the film, Les Miserables, that touches on the primal context of the film- the blinding gap between the higher and the lower class. The story takes place in France during the revolutionary era in the early 19th Century, when the revolutionaries sought to overthrow King Louis-Philippe, under whose reign the working class were reduced to poverty and desolation. This work bluntly depicts poverty being the cause of people’s actions, as well as the prejudice and the mistreatment of those belonging to the realm of the oppressed.
The film’s opening scene gives us a glimpse of the prisoner’s inhumane conditions: drenched, starving prisoners are forced to heave a ship into dry-dock. One of them is Jean Valjean, also known as 24601, who suffered 19 years of prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children. He is released on parole, but is shunned and refused to be given shelter due to his past. He breaks parole and assumes a new identity, turning his life around through the kindness of Bishop Myriel. 8 years later, he becomes a compassionate factory owner and a mayor. But then, he exposes his identity and tries to flee from the single-minded Inspector Javert. He encounters his former worker Fantine, who resorted to prostitution to make ends meet for her daughter, Cosette. Valjean rescues her and takes her to the hospital after she is arrested by Javert on false grounds. On her deathbed, Valjean promises to take Cosette under his wing. He fulfils his promise and shelters Cosette in a convent. Nine years later, Cosette falls for Marius Pontmercy, a member of the ABC Society, a revolutionary party that speaks for the poor and the oppressed, seeking to overthrow the monarchy. The organization rebelled and was wiped out by the French military, similar to the fate of the real-life June Rebellion of 1832.
The title itself, The Miserable Ones, highlights the poverty which divides the people of France into distinct classes. The movie unflinchingly depicts the despicable social condition in France─ the wealthy bourgeoisie, and the poor working class. This was a society unforgiving in their judgement and treatment of the wretched, with no welfare state. All throughout the film, we see the horrors of the consequences that come with being a member of the lower class the violation of basic human rights, prejudice, poverty, and abuse. Poverty reduced Jean Valjean to misery, forcing him to steal bread to keep his family alive, and gets subjected to 19 years of dehumanization in prison. He is shunned and kicked out of shelters, after being released, due to the stigma surrounding him as an ex-convict. Poverty caused Fantine to sink into desperation and sell her dignity to keep her daughter alive. The unjust system also manifested itself when Inspector Javert arrested her on the false accusations of a bourgeois man who sexually assaulted her. Javert refused to listen to her, a lowly prostitute, whose word has no merit. The Thernadiers, a middle-class and well-to-do couple, shamelessly swindle and exploit on the innocence of the less-fortunate individuals such as Cosette, who they forced into child labor and deprived her of her childhood that Eponine, and the other richer, more privileged children get to experience. Such is the atrocity of their condition that Gavroche, a local street urchin, muses, that the “fight for liberty” has become “fight for bread”. This movie also emphasizes the burning passion in the hearts of the oppressed, their thirst for revolution, and their hunger for justice against the rotten system which corrupts and grinds down the poor into misery and desperation. Yet despite their wretchedness, they continue to cry out against the unspeakable prejudices and discrimination rampant in their society. While not entirely successful, the rebellion led by Enjolras and the ABC proved that even the most lowly could not be silenced.
While the movie failed to delve deeper into the complexities of revolution, it did not fail to capture my heart. With the tear-jerking moments and heart-wrenching performances, one could not help but be drawn to captivating portrayal of each character, and the actors behind them. The movie gives a fresh take on Victor Hugo’s novel in the form of a musical. Everything is well-crafted and beautifully woven into a single masterpiece that will not only induce goosebumps, but will make its viewers think and analyze with its symbolisms and stark representation of reality.
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