Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

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