The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at

Playing Les Miserables

Pianist Neil Brand explains the excitement behind accompanying the ‘greatest ever adaptation’ of Victor Hugo’s master work.

‘A silent film that runs 397 minutes, (that’s just over six and a half hours) – surely such a thing cannot exist, and even if it did, who would want to see it? Well, it does exist, and millions of people want to see it, the reason being that this epic movie is, in my humble opinion, the greatest ever adaptation of Victor Hugo’s master work, Les Miserables.

Made by the great French director Henri Fescourt in 1925/26 and shot in many of the locations that Hugo used for the book, Les Miserables shapes Hugo’s five novels into four chapters which tell the classic story with stunning power and immediacy. This is no ordeal or duty job to tick off the bucket list, it is no less than a transcendent emotional experience on a par with Abel Gance’s Napoleon. And I can’t wait to accompany it on the piano.

French cinema was in thrall from the earliest days to what it called the cineroman, or serial. Long serials running to multiple parts became best known through the work of Louis Feuillade, whose 1913 thriller Fantomas, running to twenty-two chapters in five episodes, was hugely popular in cinemas the length and breadth of the country and spawned innumerable followers. Serials made good business sense as they ensured punters came back again and again to cinemas, eager to see how the story turned out. They often ended in cliffhangers, and the US’s The Perils of Pauline (1914) and others owed their existence entirely to French design. In the 1920s, the French serial became more sophisticated, better funded, more able to turn to the classics and make them spring to life for the camera. Fescourt was the driving force of a company that made only cineromans, culminating in Les Miserables and an equally acclaimed Monte-Cristo (1929).

What is astonishing about this film is its all-embracing and timeless depiction of Hugo’s story, which makes a breathless rush of suspense out of its extended running time. We have space to genuinely feel Valjean’s struggle for redemption, to begin to understand the implacable Javert, to get to know the doomed, idealistic boys on the barricades and the women that love them. The performances are all excellent, Sandra Milowanoff in the dual role of Fantine/Cosette and Nivette Saillard as Eponine particularly guaranteed to break your heart. Places and characters are introduced in close up details of ruined arches or scuffed shoes, thus attaining Hugo’s own mastery of storytelling, illuminating great ideas by drawing our attention to tiny signifiers.

It is nothing less than wonderful to play to, creating its own score by sheer vividness of narrative

And the music? I jumped at playing this film in its gorgeous new tinted print two years ago at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, because I played half of it in my first year at the National Film Theatre (now BFI) in the late 1980s. I have played it again since, and its magic never fails to inspire warm, emotive music, a dream world in which we are all a part of this immense experience. The film doesn’t feel six and a half hours to watch, or to play – indeed it is nothing less than wonderful to play to, creating its own score by sheer vividness of narrative.

It is one of the great silent films and an unmissable experience for anybody interested in what the cinema, in its purest, pictorial form, can do. You may not hear ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ – but you will hear the authentic voice of France’s greatest writer as his masterwork unfolds before your eyes.’

Les Miserables with piano accompaniment from Neil Brand screens on Sunday 23 April

With thanks to David Robinson and Lenny Borger for extracts from their programme note to the Pordenone performance.