Anne Hathaway Dreamed a Dream less complete

So I have been trying to write this big huge other piece about film, and exhibition, and how I feel about that whole world right now. It has become a bit of a monster so I am putting that aside to write about something a little less serious; the song “I Dreamed a Dream”. Specifically I want to demonstrate that though Anne Hathaway’s performance in the film version of Les Miserable (2012) is quite moving, it lacks depth. I am not trying to take anything away from Hathaway, but maybe from Tom Hooper the Director. What I wish to show is that though her performance is powerful it should by no means be considered the epitome of that song, and by no means should it eclipse others performers work with that song.

Anne Hathaway version


I feel I may loose some people here. Her performance drove many people to tears, millions most likely. That is true power, and she is a truly wonderful performer, deserving of her Oscar. This power however, does not imply depth of emotion, nor does the fact that the performance is incredibly tortured. These things are not depth, they are singular emotional tones, and though she can make these tones resonate with almost anyone paying attention to her, the direction of her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ not only missed opportunities it actually placed that character in the position of victim, which dehumanizes her. As a point of comparison I am going to use Ruthie Henshall performing  at some type of variety show, not the ideal setting, but her performance drowns out the lack of setting and costume.

Ruthie Henshall version


So let me speak about the basics of this song. It is Fantine’s solo, it is the audience’s window into her as a person. The song is about how her life has turned out, and how she got to be where she is. Most importantly the song is about dreams, and how far away reality can be from those dreams. At its core the song is about a woman who has reached the end, and she is reflecting upon the life that she lived. That is quite a lot of material tied into less then 4 minutes, but it is all there.

The song is preempted with Fantine speaking about the past, implying that the her view of the world has altered. “When men were kind… When the world was a song, and the song was exciting” this time has passed, she no longer feels that this is true, and she states “then it all went wrong” there was a moment where her world changed from bliss, to hell. The song is then about this journey, from the source of her bliss, to the cause of her hell Fantine guides us through her world and what it has become.

Right from the outset we can hear the two different approaches that Hathaway and Henshall are taking. Henshall sings the lines “when hope was high and life worth living” with a sense of that hope, there is lightness in her voice. This is the bench mark for her version, a deep hope is constantly present throughout the performance, and her character’s story is viewed through this lens of hope, and its loss. Hathaway’s Fantine does not express this feeling of hope, her voice is soft, it barely speaks. Her whispers demonstrate a weight upon the character, and this is the charcter’s lens. She is to be seen as a woman bearing a great deal of burden from the world around her.

We hear this most clearly when she nearly falters after the expression of “God” in the line “I dreamed that god would be forgiving”. This is a powerful moment for her character. She is broken by this idea, a god who she believed in, believed could save her, forgive her, but that was dream, a falsehood. Hathaway’s character knows that all these dreams are untrue, and that is the weight that sits most heavily upon her.

Henshall’s emotional emphasis comes in again on “Then I was young and unafraid” there is a nostalgia present in her voice. She is going back in time, and she is filled with that feeling of youth and courage. Within these next few lines she is relishing in a time when youth afforded her the ability to believe in a better world, to waste energy on silly things, when there were no consequences to dreaming.

Hathaway’s Fantine does not relish in these memories, she dwells on the words “used, and wasted” with mournful regret. As if there were something in that time gone by that she wishes she could change. And then comes the songs first major tonal switch;

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame

This is a key moment in the song, for Henshall, the darkness of her world begins to cloud into her performance. A sense of fear is shared here bewteen the two performances. The difference is that this is a shift for Henshall who has just been nostalgic and is now reminiscing as if shell shocked, remembering a great trauma. The use of tiger as metaphor for reality, or outside forces of the world and the description of “tearing your hope apart” demonstrates the ferocity of Fantine’s experience.

Hathaway uses this moment to bring her character to the point of tears. We then hit a big note on the word “shame” there is a lift in the music a swell as emotions boil over. Henshall takes us from deep hurt as she begins to sing the word, and as the song lifts we and the character are lifted out of this low and back into a high. We come out on top, and now she is beyond reminiscent she lives these lines. Her summer of love, the high point in her life. We the audience get to live this memory with her through her use of emotion. We can feel the beauty of that time, understand why life was worth living.

In contrast Hathaway brings us from the point of tears up through shame to hysterical tears and deep breathes for this next section. She culminates this emotional swivel with a shift from hysterical sadness to deep anger on “he took my childhood in his stride”. For me this is where the lack of character depth becomes prominent. Her anger at this man is centered here on the loss of her childhood, at the moment of their sexual union. His desire for sex took something away from her that she cannot retrieve. But it is this sexual union that produced the child Cosette. To me this negates much of what this song is about, much of what this character is about. It places her as a victim to this man, and then a victim to the rest of the world. Her hatred implies she had no control over this situation, that she did not choose to loose her innocence she was some how wronged in this action. It puts her in a position of weakness, the audience sees her in this weakened state and she never recovers from it.

Henshall’s Fantine does not see this loss of childhood as a point of anger, her performance presents this line with pride. For this Fantine, the loss of her childhood was received with a sense of fulfillment  There is pride and fulfillment in her voice and expression. It is these attributes that I find her character depth, it is the strength that has gotten her this far in a world filled with Tigers, a world that tries to turn this moment into shame.

We must understand that Cosette is where hope still lives, and this is why that character is so important; not only to Fantine, but to the whole story of Les Miserables. If Fantine expresses with hatred the moment at which she conceived this child it takes away from the entire show. Cosette is not shameful for her, Cosette is her world, and she would and does give everything to preserve that.

For Henshall’s Fantine it is the nameless man’s absence, his leaving that is the source of her pain. “But he was gone when autumn came” brings us into a  yet another tonal shift for Henshall. We have just moved through her remembrance of the best days of her life, the beauty of love experienced culminating in the conception of her child and the great sense of pride that fills her with. We are then hit with disbelief, and pian, moving into longing. Another dimension to the character, this man that has left her and caused her so much grief and despair yet he still holds that place in her heart where she remembers what love felt like. This is the ultimate tragedy for the character of Fantine, the person that has caused her the greatest pain is also the person whom all her dreams revolve around, because all her positive experiences in life where with this person.

It is here that Henshall’s Fantine starts falling to pieces on the stage holding back her tears at the realization that “there are dreams that cannot be” and her impending doom “there are storms we cannot weather”. Henshall’s despair finishes out the song now, as she sings the last few lines we are brought into the realization that this character will see no redemption, that life has not given her a way out.  It is through the realization of a life lived and lost too early that the despair of the song is felt. With out the emotional highs of her reminiscence we cannot feel true empathy for her characters despair.

In this final section of the song for Hathaway there is no where new for her Fantine to take us. She has presented us with despair the whole length of her song, and now all that is left to feel is pity for a women who has been taken advantage of by the world. This is a weakness in the direction to me. I am not interested in feeling pity, as no one is interested in feeling pitied. I seek to understand a character, as I seek to be understood. I think that is true for most people, which is why Henshall’s ability to pull us into her character through her expressions of hope are so much more meaningful as they allows us to empathize with her feeling of despair. We do not pity this character Fantine, no we are transported on to that stage and become Fantine for a few brief moments. It is because the song is built to give us these few brief moments that it is considered one of the best stage songs of all time, and it is because Henshall gives us such a range of emotion that we are able to understand this character enough to make that leap into her mind, and into her heart.

This is a deeply sad song, but it is also a deeply beautiful one. I hope I have made some  interesting points, and I hope it made you think about the power of performance and the power of good song writing. I am no expert on either, but I like to take a few minutes to really appreciate them when I see them. I hope you do the same.

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