the women of les misérables
I, like many millions of others, went to see the highly acclaimed Les Misérables these holidays. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Don’t tell anybody this (seeing as I am a student of literature and a big fan of the theatre), but prior to this movie I had very little to absolutely no knowledge of the plot or characters of this famous story. Somehow, I had managed to avoid it my entire life, despite many people around me absolutely loving it.
Therefore my viewing of this cinematic epic was my first experience with Victor Hugo’s now classic tale, and I felt that this influenced my view of each of the characters. This is particularly applied to the leading ladies of Les Mis.
I think that it is interesting, in the anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards (in which Les Mis is nominated for a stunning eight awards), to take a closer look at the women portrayed, and to leave aside the privileged actors who got the opportunity to bring them to life. Although the tale of Les Mis is based on actions where men are the perpetrators – mainly, the story of Valjean and the revolutionaries – the women play a central role in the progression of the plot. Without these women, the emotional aspect would almost certainly be gone.
Let’s start with Fantine. Already I am going to contradict myself here, as I did say to leave the actors aside, but, I’m sorry, it’s kind of impossible to disregard the performance of Anne Hathaway. She was brilliant – I wanted to stand up and applaud in the movie theatre (which I heard actually happened in a few theatres; unfortunately not mine, but there were people sniffing loudly and crying indiscreetly). I certainly hope that she wins the award for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards this week.
So, Fantine. She was the character that I found most resonated with her audience, not solely due to her horrific circumstances of being forced to prostitute to provide for her illegitimate child after being unfairly dismissed from her factory job, but the fact that this happened to her, more or less, because she was a woman.
Fantine struggles to support both herself and her child, Cosette, on her very minimal earnings. This means that she is forced to be apart from her, and takes drastic moves, including turning to prostitution, to earn this money. It is Fantine’s suffering in supporting a young Cosette that draws out the emotion in the early stages of the film. Her spectacular fall from grace and the sacrifices she makes both physically and emotionally are arguably the most poignant in the film. The song “I Dreamed a Dream” represent these raw emotions.
Fantine is also a crucial character in the plot progression, in that her death allows the emancipation of Cosette by Valjean. She is also crucial to Valjean’s story, and casting the sympathy of audiences towards him as opposed to his nemesis Javert.
Fantine’s daughter Cosette begins her life in the movie as an exploited child, forced to work tirelessly by the family to which Fantine entrusts her. This all changes when she is adopted by Valjean, and from that moment on, she is protected and sheltered from just about anything bad happening in the world around her. As much as Valjean attempts to protect Cosette from the horrors of revolutionary war and his dark past, he ultimately cannot.
Because of the manner in which Valjean protects her, Cosette’s character ultimately becomes symbolic – of love, innocence and beauty. In this way she is a unique character in that her suffering is comparatively minimal.
And then there is Éponine. Poor Éponine. The story of Les Mis is generally one of despair and misery, but I believe that Éponine suffers the most. Her parents, despite loving her very much, are con artists and swindlers. She is poor. She has prematurely aged beyond her years. She joins the revolutionaries, ultimately leading to her downfall and brutal death. And she is hopelessly in love with young Marius, who will never love her back and this, as much as anything, means the sacrifice of her own life.
Through Éponine, the audience learns about sacrifice. And sacrifice is as timeless and universal a theme as any, as we all make sacrifices for the people that we love, and for causes which we believe.
Ultimately, these female characters are what I found to be the most interesting and poignant part of the film. Their suffering, their sacrifices and their storylines made the story the epic that it is, adding humanity and emotion to a story of war and history.
We’ll find out soon enough just how much this film has been rewarded on what is arguably the biggest awards night of the year – hopefully justly. Until then, I think I’d better start reading the equally epic novel on which all of this is based.
By Alexandra Van Schilt