Les Miserables (2012 Film) Review

Contains Spoilers.

I have to admit it: I’m not a great fan of musicals.  The bombastic musical numbers, stereotypical jazz hands and lack of realism usually grate heavily on me.  I’ve never seen classics such as Grease or Mamma Mia, and I never plan to, since I have no interest in watching clichés in action.   But Les Miserables was always clearly going to be different.  I didn’t know much about it, other than being set during revolutionary France – which, honestly, is alone enough to sell a film for me – and that it features much misery.  And I’d heard glowing reviews for it.  So, I thought I’d go see it;  this was not a mistake.

At 157 minutes in length, my intolerance of sitting through whole films was sure to be tested to its limit, much as it was during my viewing of The Hobbit.  I had no reason to fear, for the film was a thoroughly engaging experience from beginning to end, and I only looked at my watch four times – low for my standards!  This is in part due to the very interesting way in which the film tackles the plot.  It’s set primarily across three time periods: 1815, 1823 and 1832.  In 1815, Jean Valjean has just been released from servitude for the crime of stealing bread, and the story covers his refusal to report for parole and attempts to escape from capture by the policeman Javert.  The events of 1823 include Valjean, now a successful businessman, continuing to avoid Javert; his worker Fantine’s descent into poverty, prostitution and eventually death; and Valjean’s adoption of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  In 1832 the events of the failed June Rebellion play out and brings together every character.  More a tribute to the original Victor Hugo 1862 novel than this adaptation, the plot skillfully develops the characters and themes, perfectly intertwining them together.  Not until the final twenty minutes does Les Miserables begin to feel repetitive and dragged out, and even here the film is such an enjoyable watch that I hardly noticed.

The acting is terrific.  Hugh Jackman is the undeniable star as Valjean, hardly identifiable as the same actor between 1815 and 1832.  I actually was quite confused about who was whom to begin with, partly down to my inability to instantly recognise faces but also due to his incredible acting.  Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and I’m just going to admit that I liked his singing, too.  This might not mean much coming from someone who enjoys atonal music (I suspect I’m slightly tone deaf) but I don’t understand all the negativity towards his performance.  The entire cast seemed so perfect in their roles that unless you’re an experienced music critique (I’m not) then it isn’t worth mentioning everyone individually.  The only characters I didn’t enjoy were Thénardier and his wife, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  This wasn’t down to their acting, I just found their comedy roles grating and went against the tone of the film.

In terms of writing, I was heavily impressed by the development of the characters.  To praise him again, Valjean must be one of the most realistic, developed and three-dimensional characters in the history of literature.  The fact that this comes across in a musical is truly remarkable.  Fantine, Marius and Éponine are, likewise, also developed to an astonishing degree.  Less so is Cosette, who while excellently portrayed as a child feels underdeveloped as a teenager.  This is largely down to the ‘love at first sight’ method of introducing her romance with Marius, where they look at each other and are suddenly a couple.  For such an important feature of the story, there’s not much excuse for this – particularly considering the high standard of everything else.

I’m torn over the film’s depiction of historical events.  While someone without a knowledge of French history between 1789 and 1848 will undoubtedly allow most historical references to go over their head, I’m debating whether this is a bad thing.  The film is not worse for omitting explanations of who the monarchs were, of leaving no reference to the 1830 revolution only two years previous to the events in 1832, or for lacking much mention of the Napoleonic Wars.  I have located one area which could have had a bit more development however.  It’s never clear precisely why the students want to get rid of the monarchy; while there are mentions of “King after King” being no better than each other, and the social environment definitely shows how a revolution would be desirable, perhaps another line or two wouldn’t go amiss – it almost seems like a student project for some Practical Politics degree.

Most of my comments may be more suited to a critique of the novel – which I plan to read someday – so I need to mention the music.  From the very beginning, it’s apparent that the music is utterly fitting and beautiful.  Whether singing in desperation, (such as Fantine’s famous ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), resolve (‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’), love (‘A Heart Full of Love’), sadness (‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’) or hope (‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), each song is a heart-swelling wonder.  Even Javert’s ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ I enjoyed.  The only song which grated was ‘Master of the House’, for the same reason I didn’t like the Thénardiers which I mentioned above.  Outwith the context of the film the soundtrack stands up as nothing short of brilliance.  Particular standouts are ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘One More Day’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

The direction was also completely captivating.  Tom Hooper really brings the historical setting alive with wide, sweeping shots interspersed with close ups which bring the intensity of emotion directly to the viewer.  Mark Kermode commented on the wisdom of avoiding medium shots, to truly create an experience which would be impossible to witness in a theatre.  The shot which pans down on 1832 Paris, past the elephant, has to be my favourite moment in the film.

Les Miserables is a film which has refused to leave my thoughts since I saw it.  I’m possessed by a fervent desire to re-watch it, which is always a good thing.  The characters, the music, the setting… Virtually everything is perfect.  By far it’s the best film I’ve seen for a while, and I would highly recommend it.

Coming Soon: Les Miserables (musical) review & Les Miserables (novel) review.

Final Rating: 9.5/10

Oxfam Report: Rich Could End Poverty

The charity Oxfam, which deals with efforts to tackle poverty throughout the world, has released a report which should come as no surprise: that the 100 richest people in the world have enough money to cure world poverty four times over.  Earning an annual amount of $240 billion, these billionaires have the ability to alleviate the suffering of millions, yet don’t use it.  As the world’s poorest starve in these times of economic depression, the richest 1% have in fact seen their income increase by 60% over the last twenty years.  In light of these facts, criticisms against France’s Socialist Government increasing taxes on the rich or our own government’s targeting of the poor through cracking down on ‘benefit scroungers’ when far more is lost through tax evasion, are completely unfounded actions.

Imagine a prosperous, peaceful and equal (how else would they avoid destroying their own race?) alien civilisation were to conduct a survey on our planet.  They would examine Europe, America, Australia, Japan, etc. and see very prosperous nations with very healthy, well-nourished people in them, living on the height of our civilisation’s technological advances.  And yet they would also notice people sleeping rough on streets in the rain.  They would then look at Africa and Asia, seeing mass hunger and illness and death, yet some incredibly well-off people interspersed throughout.  On deeper analysis they would see that our world has enough materials and food to feed everyone, but one half of the world gets most of it.

If they didn’t then destroy our planet to stop us spreading throughout the Universe, they would be very naive.

Report: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/cost-of-inequality-oxfam-mb180113.pdf

Mali: Letter to Francois Hollande

In response to reports of the deaths of 11 civilians in Mali in French airstrikes, I sought out an email address to contact French President Francois Hollande.  I doubt he’ll ever read it, and because it’s written in English it may even be discarded (I wondered whether to contact the French embassy instead), but here’s the email I sent to his official address:

“Dear Mr. President,

I welcome the news that France has intervened in the Malian Conflict. Severe human rights abuses are being conducted on a daily basis in the north of the country, and it is clear that the insurgents cannot be allowed to control the entirety of Mali for both the country’s sake and for the sake of the rest of the world.
However, it is being reported that French air strikes upon rebel bases have caused civilian casualties. Both Al-Jazeera and The Guardian are reporting the deaths of at least eleven civilians, three of whom are believed to be children. I urge you to ensure that the French Air Force does everything within its power to avoid civilian deaths, and that when in the tragic circumstances civilians are killed, their deaths are investigated thoroughly.
Yours sincerely
Mathew _______”

France Intervenes In Malian Conflict

This is a highly significant development in a story which most people probably won’t know much about – a true fringe story, so to speak, although it shouldn’t be.

In April last year Tuareg rebels, equipped with weapons and experience from mercenaries returning from the 2011 Libyan Civil War, managed to take control of the north of Mali after a military coup left the country unstable.  It is generally accepted that the Tuareg people, native nomadic inhabitants of the central Sahara region, do have legitimate grievances, although the international community has condemned the insurgency.  On the 6th April the Independent State of Azawad was declared, and has to date not been recognised by a single country.

As 2012 progressed the insurgency took, from a Western perspective, a sinister turn as Islamist groups, the largest of which is called Ansar Dine, became more influential.  In June the Islamist-Tuareg alliance collapsed and conflict broke out between parties and militias of the two alignments.  This conflict resulted in a victory for the Islamists, pushing the Tuareg forces out of their own self-declared homeland.  As can be imagined, these events have made many a Western leader uneasy.  Talks have been made of sending an international, United Nations mandated force to retake the north of the country, headed by the The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).  France, the previous colonial power of Mali until 1960, had said it would not be directly involved in such military operations.

Life in Islamist, extreme Sharia-following Mali, or ‘Azawad’, has not been pleasant.  Unverified but brutal reports have been filtering out of the region in the last year including stories of public executions, the destruction of historical mausoleums in Timbuktu and even the banning of music.  Human rights groups have decried gross violations of international law, but the negotiations and inaction goes on.

Then the Islamists began to march southward.  On the 10th January 2013 Islamist forces captured the strategic town of Konna in central Mali, threatening the entire country.  This appears to have been a ‘red line’ for France.  While one would like to think France is concerned about the human rights of the millions of Malians who could be subject to a Sharia-based totalitarian rule, their main motivations are probably more to do with an economic interest in Mali and fear of creating a hive for terrorism within Africa.  The official reason is to protect the 6,000 French citizens residing in the country.
Whatever the motivations, President Hollande of France yesterday ordered the French military to intervene.

In remarkably fast-moving events, the French military appears to have helped the Malian army push back the Islamist advances.  These skirmishes alone may have caused more than 100 casualties.    In another move, the French military launched an operation to rescue Denis Allex, held by similar Islamist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia, due to fears of reprisals for the intervention.  Tragically the operation was a failure and is thought to have led to the death of Allex and two French soldiers.  France has also made moves to increase security at home over fears of potential terrorist attacks on French soil in retaliation for the intervention.

The future of this crisis could now go many ways.  The French air-force has begun launching airstrikes against militants in the north which I fear will only lead to more innocent deaths, though may be necessary to ensure a swift victory.  It is not clear whether there is yet either the will or the capability to retake the north, though this will certainly be soon a priority.  Content that the situation has stabilised, France may wait for the United Nations to respond.

Relevant links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17481114
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20991719
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20991723
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20996963
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/01/2013112133154249167.html

Travelling The World

I have a confession to make…  I have never in my life left the UK.  This usually is greeted with shock and pity whenever I admit it, but that’s the tragic truth.  In my and my family’s defence, I’ve seen an awful lot of the UK: I’ve at least passed through most major cities, seen a massive amount of the Scottish highlands and made a few ventures into Wales – though I’ve yet to tackle Northern Ireland.  (I suppose that would be another benefit to Scotland becoming independent – these places would suddenly count as ‘abroad’!)  But with respect to all the individual cultures within our country,and I know personally how far these can differ, what I really want is to explore the cultures, landscapes, wildlife and history of other countries.

So I’ve compiled a list of the countries in the world I would like to visit, presented in map form:

Places I Want to Visit

Okay, I appreciate there are problems here…  North Korea and Iran would be challenging to get into, and since I don’t have a death wish countries like Syria, Mali and Afghanistan may have to wait.   I may voluntarily miss out the Vatican.

Joking aside, I really would like the opportunity to visit as many foreign countries as I can, but I have narrowed them down to places which I shall focus on first:

  1. Canada.  Similar culture, same language, less insane than various elements of the USA – should feel fairly at home here!  I’ve been told Vancouver would be a great place to start, and I would also love to explore some of the more far flung northern provinces.
  2. France.  I speak basic French, though would need to seriously brush up on it.  There are so many parts of France worth visiting, from the typical tourist spots in Paris to the cornfields and castles of Provence, from visiting the fields of the First World War to the Alps.
  3. South Africa.  I still can’t put my finger on why, but I have a slight obsession with this country.  I think I’m in awe of the astounding progress which has been made since Apartheid, despite failings the government may currently have.  Feels like an accessible country to start my explorations of Africa with, due to the use of English and my knowledge of the country.  My only concern is that the country could potentially, in a worst case scenario, slide further and further into corruption and intolerance and may not become the safest place for a European to visit.
  4. Egypt.  There’s so much!  The history angle would dominate, obviously, with the pyramids and tombs and ancient cities.  But also more recent history; how fascinating it would be to walk across Tahrir Square and know the victories which had been won there – a symbol for the ongoing battle for freedom.
  5. Japan.  This would be the most difficult by far.  Completely alien language and script, alien culture, alien social norms, alien technology!  These factors make Japan all the more appealing, but I know I would struggle and definitely could not go alone; the culture shock would be enormous.  Yet Japan seems such a beautifully rich and diverse country, I have to visit it at least once in my lifetime.

One other significant plan I have is to look into the various railway deals offered in Europe which travel through a variety of countries, offering a chance to experience a multitude of cultures and scenery without having to plan each journey individually.  I’m not sure these still exist – I hope so!

If – no, when – I travel to these countries, I hope to update this blog accordingly with my experiences.

Central African Republic Rebellion

For those of us who know nothing about the Central African Republic (CAR), which I would imagine shamefully is most people  – myself included – a recent rebellion appears to have sprung up out of nowhere.  The rebels took up their weapons not even a month ago on the 10th December 2012, and since have captured most of the north of the country, in some cases without firing a shot.  They are within reach of the capital Bangui, some reports saying their positions are less than 100 miles away.The background of the rebellion is complex and I know little of it.  It seems to be after a peace deal signed in 2007 after another rebellion – the CAR has faced endless coups and rebellions since gaining independence from France in 1960 – which the rebels claim has not been followed correctly.  The rebels’ aims are to depose President Francois Bozizé, who has ruled since 2003.  They claim to have no interest in entering government themselves, rather they want to kickstart democratic processes.

Bozizé first appealed for international aid, but his cries have gone mostly unheard.  There are around 200 French soldiers in the CAR in a logistical role, helping to train the local army, but President Francois Hollande of France has stated they will not get involved in the conflict.  The CAR’s neighbours also seem reluctant to intervene.  Desperate, Bozizé took the sensible move of offering to let the rebels in to a unity government.  The rebels rejected this offer however, stating that they do not trust his words.

The Central African Republic looks to be on the brink of a crisis.

Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.