I took my nine-year-old daughter to see the film adaptation of Les Mis last weekend.
I was slightly nervous about what she'd make of it: the story is, after all, one of grinding poverty, the descent into prostitution of well-meaning women, breaking parole and living as a fugitive, obsessive pursuit, despair and failed revolutions. I mean, I don't let her watch Eastenders, so why would I allow her to see Fantine have no other option but to sell herself to feed Cosette?
In my mind, the justification is that she's got an appetite for storytelling, and knows the difference between fact and fiction. I want to share stories with her that I have found moving, effective, compelling in the past -- although there's always a bit of an issue if I try to ram something I know to be canonical down her throat: she can sniff out my mauvaise foi a mile off. But I feel it's important and right to be experimental. We could always leave, I reasoned, if she was really upset by it. So, in we went.
And was she upset? Well, she hid her eyes when Gavroche was shot. And asked me in puzzlement what the man was doing to Fantine. But frankly the one doing the sobbing was me.
Les Mis is such a tearjerker that you have to draw a distinction between being disturbed by inappropriate content, and responding to the terrible sadness portrayed with empathy. It isn't horror, although some of the events we witness are horrific. And it's not softened by being a musical version of the original novel -- the songs are like an intravenous injection of affect. My daughter was rapt.
I was blown away by the impact of the high Romantic ethos and the melodrama of the musical adaptation. One gave permission for the other, and it tore through all my careful critical filters. Of course at some level I know it's as hammy as a soap opera. But Hugo had something real to say about the degradation of the human spirit under conditions of martial law, and when there is no social safety net. He was, or rather he gradually became, a progressive democrat. Hugh's tools are a fluency in the language of the passions, and a gift for plotting that power through the most aloof, snobbish, detached or cynical mind. He argues for social justice and against meanness of spirit and transmits his message through an irresistible narrative.
Yet for all its high romantic credentials, the central protagonist, Jean Valjean, does not have a love interest. He rescues Fantine out of guilt and shame that his lack of awareness precipitated the chain of events that led to her downfall. And he takes on the care of her child because of the same sense of obligation. The love triangle is left for Cosette, Marius and the daughter of the Thénardiers. The highest form of love is defined by Hugo in no uncertain terms: it is a Christian love of one's fellow men, a kind of unconditional regard for the other, which leads Valjean to forgive Javert over and over again, despite Javert's obsessive and relentless pursuit. Hugo offers an implicit critique of marriage, suggesting that families are social units which can emerge out of all kinds of liaison.
All this lit crit stuff aside, the thing that had me sobbing was Anne Hathaway singing 'I dreamed a dream', in a single take, with a camera close up in her face. I have never seen a performance so powerful.
When I cautiously asked my little girl a couple of days later whether she thought she should have seen it, she considered the question and said that she wasn't sure it was really aimed at children, but that she was glad she'd seen it, because it made her think.