I actually didn't know much about Les Miserables before watching the film, except by reputation. I've never read the book, seen a movie adaptation nor seen the stage play. I'm only really familiar with a couple of songs because they've become context-free audition standbys for TV Talent Shows. My knowledge can be summed up by: lots of singing French people, and everyone dies. Which, as it turns out, isn't that far off the truth. On the plus side, its actually pretty good.
So, the story starts with Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being released from 19 years in prison and been told to go get on with his life by Javert (Russell Crowe), which is easier said than done when the first thing you have to tell any prospective employer is that you've just done two decades in the joint. Valjean is offered a chance at redemption after being allowed to nick a bunch of silver from a church, in a piece of subtext thats about as subtle as the rest of the subtext of the film. Then we skip forward a few years to find Valjean the Mayor of a small town and doing very well for himself, thank you, but fate has other plans as Javert re-enters his life he encounters the doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway), eventually promising to raise her daughter Cosette as she dies from extremely heavy-handed message-sending.
And that's the point at which I started crying.
So yes, Les Miserables is pretty heavy handed in it's symbolism and calculated in its presentation, but it is gripping, interesting and effective with it. Director Tom Hooper makes the decision to film most of the songs as close-ups on the actors singing, which is pretty brave, as it risks leaving them exposed on screen, but prevents the film feeling too "stagey", a common problem of adapting plays and musicals. It makes it feel like an intimate story, not a grand one, a small world of characters who can't help but run into each other as larger events wheel around them; a story not of Revolution but of personal choice, fate and redemption.
What is also interesting is that it understands what I feel is the essence of Tragedy - that it is all avoidable, that there are other paths that can be taken Many of the characters are trapped or liberated by choices that they make, who to follow, to go with their heads or hearts. Fantine stands apart as the symbolic victim of society that sets much of the plot in motion, but by and large characters are presented with meaningful choices that effect their eventual fate. The only glaring exception to this is Cosette, who remains a cipher onto which other characters project; maybe it runs in the family?
In the end I found the film by turns stirring and heart-breaking; fantastic work by the whole cast helped by a strong directional sense and a great score. I get it now, I see why the show has been so long-running and successful and why the film created such a stir. It may be manipulative, but it's the right kind of manipulative, and thats fine by me. Now, pass the tissues.