To love another person is to see the face of God. — Victor Hugo
If there were ever a story that’s stood the test of time, it’s Les Miserables. It’s the story of how one act of mercy can change a soul forever. It’s the story of love’s power to redeem, reclaim and restore. It’s the story of one man, and it is the story of every man who has found this grace, this mercy, this love. Perhaps that is why it has endured for so long. For the journey of Jean Valjean is our journey as well.
The novel was an instant popular success when it was first published in the 1830s. The 20th century saw it go through multiple adaptations, on the screen and on the stage. I was first exposed to the story through Focus on the Family’s outstanding radio drama. (It is still, in my opinion, the best adaptation out there. Pick up your own copy here and I think you’ll agree.) However, the most popular adaptation is unquestionably the 1985 musical. Originally an unsuccessful French language production, its libretto was translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, and the new production launched a global phenomenon. It went on to become the second-longest-running musical of all time. But 2012 marked the first year that it was brought to the big screen.
Before seeing the film, I had never heard the musical before, aside from a couple of its most famous selections. I knew it was sung-through, like an opera, so I wasn’t sure how well I would like it going in. I came away more impressed than I had expected to be, but still preferring that radio drama. I think the musical format is a mixed blessing, hence its status as a Pro-Con in this review. Since seeing the film, I got the chance to see the musical on stage and enjoyed comparing the two. In my opinion, the screen adaptation is quite good (with a couple important caveats that are to some extent intertwined with the original musical, to be detailed in the “Cons” section). It left me more than a little misty-eyed more than once. But I confess that I almost enjoyed the behind-the-scenes featurettes about its production even more. I think anyone interested in music, singing, or sound mixing will be fascinated by these details, particularly the ground-breaking decision to sing live. I will link to the best of these clips in the course of this review.
1. Hugh Jackman: I knew Jackman had done musical work before, but I was never that impressed with his singing. I was mesmerized by this performance. He gives Valjean a simple, yet compelling voice that really bares this character’s soul. Others may have sung the role better (including the performer I saw live recently), but I don’t think any portrayals can rival this one for passionate, emotional acting. The only reason Jackman won’t win the Oscar he’s been nominated for is that Daniel Day-Lewis also made a film this year. (Talk about an unlucky break!) Here is a featurette about his performance. I was also fascinated by this featurette about how Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean on Broadway, symbolically passed the torch to Jackman by playing the Bishop.
2. Anne Hathaway: I don’t think this statuette is going to slip away. Best Supporting Actress is pretty much guaranteed. I have never, ever heard “I Dreamed a Dream” sung with such heart-wrenching anguish. The recitative alone is spell-binding. I felt the song like I never felt it before. Single shot, no cuts, three minutes in closeup—simply jaw-dropping. (This rendition also owes some of its impact to the decision to shift this song’s place from the original musical. Instead of having her break into the number when she’s barely been thrown out on the streets, it’s staged as a low cry of anguish after she’s gone through her various trials and sufferings.) Every other singer who’s done it has still sounded like she is acting, but Hathaway lives Fantine. She inhabits this character body and soul. She is also, in my opinion, the most talented female singer in the cast. For singing and acting combined, she gets my vote as the best of the film. And when she is on-screen with Jackman (as in her death scene), the results are spectacularly moving.
3. Pretty much all the rest of the singing: Virtually every actor in this production sings extremely well, which is impressive for a cast mostly composed of actors who like to sing, as opposed to the other way ’round. There are even strong vocalists in smaller supporting roles like Gavroche, little Cosette, and some of Marius’s friends whose names I didn’t even know. (I was especially taken with little Cosette—click here for a sample of her singing.) A stand-out is Eddie Redmayne as Marius, who has now become one of my favorite tenors. I think the singer in the live performance I saw was actually vocally inferior (in fact, I was surprised to feel that way for several of the key roles). Check out his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
Now I say “pretty much” all the singing was good. There’s poor Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. He’s obviously not comfortable singing, and the format limited his ability to show what he can really do as an actor. But upon re-listening, I think critics have been a bit too harsh on him. A friend of mine who sings professionally also agreed with me on this point. There were moments when he brought, if I can put it this way, a kind of rough fragility to the role of Javert. He was a non-theatrical singer, amidst a host of people who were training to sing theatrically. For a plain man of the law, perhaps that’s not so wrong, even if he lacks the magnetism of a powerful performer like Philip Quast. And referring back to our post on memorable tunes, I was especially struck by how brightly and beautifully the melody of “Stars” shone through. No other Javert that I’ve heard really makes me stop and notice that melody in the same way.
4. Valjean and Cosette: There’s something special about watching a man with a little girl. The redeemed Valjean shows particular protective tenderness to the women who fall into his path—first Fantine and then her little daughter Cosette. Jackman beautifully conveys the essence of true, honorable masculinity in these scenes. Once again taking things up a notch from the stage version, the movie camera focused on the intimacy of his relationship with Cosette in a way that can’t be caught on stage. There’s a particularly beautiful moment, based on a chapter in the book, when they are riding in a carriage, and Valjean’s heart is stirred with paternal affection as Cosette sleeps on his lap. A new song called “Suddenly” was composed especially for this scene in the movie. Here is a featurette that takes you behind the scenes of that song, which has also been nominated for an Oscar.
5. The choice to sing live: Instead of pre-recording all the tracks, the actors recorded all their singing as they performed. Others have complained that this was a mis-fire. I think it was a resounding success. Not only did it give the performances a sense of realism, it made me appreciate the fine singing even more. When you realize what this choice entailed, you have a deeper respect for how hard these actors all had to work. My favorite featurette discusses this choice, and it can be watched here. Singing buffs take notice.
6. The sound mixing: Yet another Oscar nomination that’s pretty much a shoo-in. If you even dabble a little in sound mixing, you owe it to yourself to check out this behind-the-scenes peek at how this soundtrack came together. Seriously, tuning the Bishop’s candlesticks so they would complement the music when they clinked? That’s how awesome we’re talking.
7. The scale: There are some gorgeous, sweeping shots in this movie. I still have some issues with the look of the film (see Cons), but it gives the music epic visual scope. To see Javert pacing the very edge of a rooftop high enough to let him look out over the entirety of Paris is breath-taking. Check out this little look at the massive opening sequence.
8. The story: Ultimately, this works simply because “at the end of the day,” it’s still Les Miserables. No matter how you adapt it, the iconic characters are all there, and the iconic themes are all there. The story explores some profound truths, like the fact that somebody always has to pay for the happiness of others, or that each man is faced with the exact same choice to accept grace (Valjean) or reject it (mirrored in Javert’s suicide). All this is worth a lot, not least of all to the Christian viewer.
1. Problematic content: I always research any film before watching it so that if I decide it’s still worthwhile , but a section or two needs skipping, I’m prepared. Presumably you do this as well. A largely redemptive story like this one really shouldn’t come with this sort of caveat, but sadly, there are two sequences that I must advise viewers to skip. Both of them go over-board in bringing two of the less edifying musical numbers to life: “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House.” Neither one was that good in the stage-play either, but the movie takes things a couple steps farther. The former number shows Fantine’s desperation when she first prostitutes herself, to the tune of her new co-workers advertising their “wares.” Not only is the song unedifying, but the process of Fantine’s descent into misery is upsetting/disturbing to watch as she sells her hair, her teeth and finally, herself. Nobody needs to see this, including adults. Second, “Master of the House” is a bawdy introductory number for the Thenardiers whose screen staging is full of coarse, low-brow humor. Fortunately, the film version cuts out some of Thenardiers’ blathering at the much later “Beggars at the Feast” (which provided occasion for a little crude humor unique to the stage version I saw).
Now the tricky part is, both of these problematic sections are immediately followed by two of the best and most pivotal moments of the movie. The “Lovely Ladies” number ends just before Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” and the “Master of the House” number ends just before Cosette’s first meeting with Valjean. Fortunately, these things will probably be neatly separated out by chapter on a DVD. But that’s something to scout out if you’re browsing the menu. If you are watching it via streaming video, fear not. I have minute/second markers to guide you on your adventures in fast-forwarding. Beginning of “I Dreamed a Dream”: 27:20. Cosette and Valjean’s meeting: 52:40. And there you are! (A couple more notes: When Fantine is introduced, it’s made clear in the lyrics of “At the End of the Day” that the foreman is making inappropriate advances on her. Also, after “I Dreamed a Dream,” the key scene where Valjean rescues Fantine from arrest for scratching an officer involves a brief moment of threatened sexual assault. The officer makes his advance, Fantine lashes out, then he falls back as Javert appears, and the scene moves on.)
2. The look: Hooper insisted on painting this film with the brush of unflinching, grimy realism. He really wants you to feel the “misery.” The people in the streets are dirty and scabby. Nothing is held back in portraying the filth of the sewers during the climactic final act. I’ve already mentioned Fantine’s trials and the Thenardiers’ inn. This is, literally, an in-your-face kind of a film. The close-close-up technique has spawned more than a few tonsillectomy jokes. Many of these stylistic choices clash with the transcendent nature of a musical. The makers insist that the contrast works, that you need both for the film to work. I think they pushed the realism too far, even though in principle I’ve no problem with a bit of realism. Just not THAT much realism.
3. The revolution: At the very end of the musical, we get a beautiful depiction of Jean Valjean’s death, including a direct hat tip to Hugo’s words at the top of this post. The spirit of Fantine guides him into paradise, and it seems that we will end on a spiritually transcendent note. Except it doesn’t end there. The musical brings back all the characters who have died in the story, mostly in its depiction of the ill-fated June Rebellion, for a reprise of the revolution theme “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Needless to say, this doesn’t feel very spiritual. It feels very, well, political. They’re literally waving the red flag in heaven, and in the film they are shown perched atop a much larger barricade that’s meant to foreshadow the 1848 revolution. This ends everything on the wrong note. At its heart, this story is about Jean Valjean’s spiritual journey, from the bondage of sin to the freedom of grace. The revolution is a sub-plot. Ending with echoes of the revolution takes something away from that core story.
But in fairness, Hugo’s original novel was a work of political romance. So perhaps the writers were not far off the mark when it came to conveying his own idealized vision of the revolution’s significance. To me, this has always been one of the weaker aspects of the story as a whole. Glorifying revolution for its own sake was a common mistake of Hugo’s time, but a mistake nonetheless. Even waiving the fact that it led to Marxism, communism, and all the rest, these rebellions often seemed to amount to little more than irrationally blaming the king/the rich for everything. Read the Wikipedia article for yourself, but that was how I interpreted it. This makes it hard for me to get into the parts of the story (and, by extension, the musical numbers) that are bound up with all that.
The musical: This is the only pro-con I could come up with, but it’s a biggie. As I said before, I think the musical format is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the epic scale of the story lends itself to opera (which is more or less what this is, because it’s sung-through), and this provides some powerful musical moments. Some of this stuff is simply immortal, e.g., “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I,” “What Have I Done,” “Bring Him Home,” “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” the list goes on. Also, I often found myself pausing to admire the elegance of the melodies and the poetry of the lyrics, even in smaller gems like “Castle On a Cloud” or “In My Life.”
However, the fact that this musical is sung-through also presents some problems. First of all, there’s the “connecting tissue issue,” the sung dialogue that’s just getting you from one big set piece to the other. Particularly in the hands of less experienced singers like Russell Crowe, this becomes forced and tiresome after a while. Fans of VeggieTales may recall the veggie musical Lyle, the Kindly Viking, where Bob keeps having to tell Larry “Um, you can stop singing now.” However, I appreciated the few places where the movie inserted snatches of spoken dialogue to make these transitions smoother.
Secondly, there’s the difficulty of filling 3 hours with 99% music. The song-writers got around this by crafting a relatively small number of musical themes and then recycling them with different lyrics in multiple places. Sometimes this makes sense (as when Valjean and Javert sing soliloquies with the same tune, or the tune for “I Dreamed a Dream” emerges when Fantine is remembered), but sometimes it doesn’t (like the fact that Eponine’s theme repeatedly crops up at totally unrelated big plot moments, e.g. Fantine’s death and Valjean’s death).
Finally, there are stronger and weaker moments even among the set pieces. For example, I love most of the song “Who Am I,” but the final line is “24601,” with the high note coming on the number “1.” I don’t care how significant the number is, singing a number is always funny. You can’t stop me from laughing when somebody is singing a number in a dramatic way. It just doesn’t work. And on a big picture note, the whole thing takes itself so seriously that one is sometimes tempted to step back and take a chuckle at the melodrama of it all, particularly when a character is just emoting (i.e. Eponine’s crush on Marius) or just blathering about a pointless revolution (i.e. Marius’s friends).
Bottom line: This is a movie whose source material by turns hits and misses the mark, by which I mean mostly the musical, though the novel itself isn’t entirely flawless. This story is still best appreciated when it is spoken rather than sung. At times, I found myself thinking that I would really like to see what these talented actors could do with the material had they been allowed to drop the singing, particularly Russell Crowe. But as mentioned before, there is profound material here, well serviced by some impressive songwriting. So it seems fitting to say that “at the end of the day,” you’ll be glad that you saw it.