Do you hear the actors sing?

A story everyone needs to hear at least once.

Les Misérables
dir: Tom Hooper

One of the most striking things about Les Misérables is the volume of tears it generates. These aren’t snivels but full-blown, tubeclearing excavations of the nose (I count myself here, I’ve seen it three times). It’s not the schmaltzy bits that make people cry – the song of the fallen woman Fantine (“I Dreamed a Dream”, as popularised by Susan Boyle), the sight of the urchin or the show’s wig-waving climax – but moments of greater emotional complexity: the happy death of the street-girl Éponine, or the ballad “Bring Him Home”, in which the hero Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) risks his life to save a young blade he’s never even met. In the Times last month, the theologian Ian Bradley recalled the Easter Sunday address in which Archbishop George Carey described Valjean’s early redemption scene (he is blessed by the bishop whose house he’s robbed) as “the finest description of grace outside the pages of the New Testament”. But even for heathens, the real thrill of Les Misérables is about watching one eye-popping gesture of human self-sacrifice after another and thinking, how can anyone be so . . . good?

Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation remains a hard sell for non-fans of musical theatre. For a start, it features Hollywood A-listers singing; many people are still haunted by the mahogany tones of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!. Second, the show is not exactly easy on the ear. It always felt, superficially, closer to opera than a musical, not just for its hefty themes and historical setting but for its sheer unwieldliness. The lines of exposition, written in French by Alain Boublil and translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, are often deliciously gauche and clunky: “There was a time we killed the king/ We tried to change the world too fast/ Now we’ve got another king/ He’s no better than the last.” Hooper’s decision to record the songs “live” has, as well as generating most of the film’s publicity, enhanced the music’s ragged, chaotic feel.

With tiny mikes shoved down their ear canals, linking them to a piano accompanist hidden somewhere in the corner of the set, the actors were in charge of setting their own pace for each song and occasionally, it seems, their own pitch. The fugal “Confrontation” between Valjean and his relentless pursuer Javert (Russell Crowe) – the first a piercing tenor, the second a throaty rock-and-roll voice – is just one of several moments in the show where you feel a bit like you’re trapped in a chicken run. But this is exactly what Les Misérables ought to sound like. It’s a brave production: Hooper could have sweetened the meal for the cinema but instead he’s made it even tougher.

The story, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, takes place not during the French Revolution (a common misconception) but starts in 1815 and culminates in 1830’s June Rebellion, a damp squib of an uprising in which the Parisian populace failed to turn out and 93 students were killed.

The outdoor set gives Hooper – who cleaned up at the Oscars two years ago with his last film, The King’s Speech – an opportunity to close in on the theme of personal bravery over politics. In the stage show, the famous “barricade” looks like part of the action, a symbol of wider revolution.

On film, as all manner of junk is tossed out of shops and houses including, memorably, a couple of coffins, you realise just how small and ineffectual the real-life barricades were. When things get ugly, the good folk of Paris lock their doors on the rebels and leave them to the National Guard.

“Here’s a handsome, charismatic student on the street outside your house, saying all the stuff you want to hear,” said Hooper in a recent interview. “Would you actually let him in, with his gun, when the police are chasing him? No.”

There are various other moral grey areas explored more pointedly in the film than in the stage show. There’s a new song (“Suddenly”), commissioned from the original writers and inserted after Valjean’s adoption of the orphan Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), which explains that the child is the second redemptive moment in his life: character change, unlike in the movies, is a long, complicated process.

The villain, Javert, has been fleshed out too, with a new scene taken from the book in which he asks Valjean to punish him, convinced he’s been pursuing the wrong man. “People who are unforgiving and unrelenting to those in their professional life,” says Hooper, “are often even harder on themselves in private.” Funny to think that Les Misérables, among all those other things, is about a jobsworth maddened by the kindness of someone more at peace with the world than himself. See the film, or the show, or read the book, but this remains a story that everyone needs to hear once. Then maybe five more times, if it gets to you.

Les Misérables is released on 11 January

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in "Les Misérables".

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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