Leading up to the various, continent-hopping premieres of Les Miserables, most of the media storylines surrounding the grand production have concerned Anne Hathaway‘s significant transformations (both her hair and weight loss) and the unprecedented live-to-tape singing done by the cast. Yet for all the romance, vocal majesty and production value, the stirring political rebellion at the heart of the original source material is the drumbeat as the musical reaches its crescendo.
The book Les Miserables, written in 1862 by Victor Hugo, chronicles the desperation of the French underclass in the first three decades of the 1800s. Jean Valjean, played in the film by Hugh Jackman, is the victim of a warped justice system, left for dead by a remorseless law enforcement; poverty grips and ultimately helps kill Fantine (Anne Hathaway); and the June Rebellion of 1832 — a true, failed student revolt against the monarchy — sends the story toward its ultimate conclusion.
Just a month after an election in the United States, and amid worldwide financial panic, the film carries a modern relevance.
“I’m always disciplined about saying ‘Is this the right time for a story?’ And I decided that it was weirdly time,” director Tom Hooper told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s premiere on Monday. “Because we have people all around the world who are hurting because of rising economic inequality, social inequity. We’ve had the protests in Wall Street, in London, we’ve had these seismic shifts in the Middle East, what’s happening in Syria. Regularly you see images of revolution on our front pages and our TV, and this work is the great anthem of the dispossessed. Victor Hugo’s novel was an angry tirade against social injustice, against unacceptable poverty, and sadly 150 years later, we’re still navigating these issues and they remain as timely as ever.”
Though the stage show has played for nearly three decades to all-time record audiences on Broadway and across the world, the film offers an enhanced ability to display the squalid conditions of early 19th century France, with its filthy streets, infested homes and grime-caked underclass. The living conditions and economic inequity is even starker when projected on screen, something not lost on the two actors who played the leaders of the student revolt.
Eddie Redmayne, who as the young student Marius is both enmeshed in a love triangle and waves the red flag of rebellion atop hijacked coaches, used both history lessons and modern cues to inform his classic character’s motivations.
“It’s something that Tom and I looked into, to find more of a voice in the film,” he said Monday night, referring to Hooper. “But also as we were driving to work every day, there was something in the newspapers, whether it was about the riots, whether it was about the protests on Wall Street or what was happening in the Middle East. There seemed to be a lot of young people in the world fighting for things they believed in, so there was constantly contemporary resonances that made it easier for us.”
New York native Aaron Tveit, who plays the defiant student rebellion chief Enjolras, reached back into the unabridged version of Hugo’s book to retrace the economic and political turmoil of the era, and then applied it to the marching he saw in the streets of his hometown.
“It’s very, very timely. Tom said this yesterday, that to tell a story like this that’s already so well known, I think there needs to be a reason, and I think it’s a very, very timely story,” the 29-year-old actor told THR. “Things are happening all over the world: the Occupy Wall Street movement, protests that have been happening in London, all the turmoil all over the world.”
Yet producer Cameron Mackintosh, who helped create the original stage show and has shepherded its many incarnations for nearly 30 years, said that he has always found the material relevant. Often, he said, he’d turn to a photo of a barricade on the front page of a newspaper and ask how his press agent earned such prime placement; it would then dawn on him that it was a real picture from another uprising in a volatile state, Hugo’s story playing out again in another part of the world.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin