History in Film

I had the pleasure of catching two great films over the past week, both of which incorporate a slice of nineteenth century history. It’s uncanny too, that both films are big-screen adaptations of texts that have been in the popular consciousness for quite some time. The first was the film adaptation of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga/anime series Ruroni Kenshin:

A scene from the anime adaptation.

Ruroni Kenshin is set in the years following Japan’s transition from being governed primarily by a shogunate (millitary rule) to that of a government under an emperor. This post-1868 period, known as the Meiji period, also marked the beginning for modernisation in Japan as well as the opening up of Japan’s economy. Watsuki’s Kenshin is a wandering swordsman whose deadly prowess earns him the title of Manslayer (Hitokiri Battousai). After assisting with the downfall of the shogunate, and scarred (literally and mentally) from the experience of war, Kenshin “retires”, leading the life of a wanderer. The film/manga/anime chronicle his exploits in the years that follow, during the Meiji period.

The set-pieces used in the film are impressive.  From settings, to clothes, and even food, no expense is spared in the recreation of nineteenth-century Japan.  The juxtaposition between “antiquity” and “modernity” is one that is brought out nicely in the film – this is a period where swords begin to be traded for guns, and the question is – what place does a swordsman have in this age of presumed “modernity”? It’s been a good decade since I watched the anime, but I did not feel that I needed that background to enjoy the film. Those who are not familiar with the plot of Kenshin will be able to enjoy the film nonetheless. It is also a rather violent film, but apart from the occasional gratuitous display of violence, the action scenes are well crafted, and will be a treat for action movie buffs. The actor that plays Kenshin, Takeru Sato, nails Kenshin’s characterisation down to a T. From ruthless killer to goofball, Sato is perfect in his portrayal of Kenshin.

From nineteenth century Japan, I was transported to nineteenth century France in the screen adaptation of Les Miserables. Like the political turmoil depicted in Kenshin, Les Miserables is set in the years preceding, and during the French student revolution of 1832. An adaptation of the stage production, the film is in turn an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel:

Having seen the stage production nearly two decades ago, I was rather impressed by Hooper’s adaptation of the musical. Many of the songs are cut short for obvious time constraints, but like Kenshin, Hooper’s attention to detail in creating a compelling fictional world is remarkable. The film’s set pieces are remarkable, and it brings to the production a dimension that cannot be replicated on a theatre stage. Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean is spot on, and so is Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Fantine. I’ve always been a sucker for the grittier characters in Les Mis, so Daniel Huttlestone, who plays the street urchin Gavroche, gets a mention in my book too. What I was really looking forward to was Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s roles as the Thenardiers. This has always been my favourite song in the musical:

For me, Barry James’ portrayal of Thernardier hits the spot

The character of Thernadier has always struck me as more of a villain than a comic relief, thus in his casting of Baron-Cohen it is obvious that Hooper was aiming for a more comic angle.

Youtube comment: “Would you patronise an inn run by Borat and Bellatrix Lestrange?………”

Baron-Cohen’s Thernadier is more sloppy and comic than Barry James’ depiction of the character, and most of Thernadier’s menace is somewhat diminished in the film adaptation. Still, Baron-Cohen is in his element during the comic sequences, and Bonham-Carter adds just that needed touch of derangement to the character of Mrs Thernadier. I was however, disappointed by Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert. Because of the fact that this is a screen adaptation of a musical, almost all of the film is narrated in song, and Crowe’s singing pales alongside the talents of Hathaway and Jackman. This sequence is one of the most tense scenes in the entire production, and Crowe’s rendition of Javert in this part is somehow lacking in menace.

If anything, what struck me about both films was the attention to detail made by both directors in re-creating each text’s fictional historical environments. Adapting texts such as an anime series and a full length musical brings up the typical challenge of being able to compress each text’s narrative into the space of three hours or less, but I think that both have done this reasonably well.


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'horror': Middle English: via Old French from Latin horror, from horrere ‘tremble, shudder’.

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