I was a freshman in college the first time I saw Les Miserables on Broadway. I loved it. I spent hours with a borrowed soundtrack in the radio station listening to the songs on (of all things, an ancient artifact) the newsroom turntable. So I was skeptical that I would love the movie version of this grand story of the French student uprising of 1832 and the inner turmoil of the characters of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Jean Valean (Hugh Jackman) and Javert (Russell Crowe).
Plays often don’t translate well to the big screen in my opinion but Tom Hooper, the movie’s director does a great job in dismissing that in the opening scene where prisoners sing the chain-gang opening “Look Down” while pulling a massive boat to shore as waves crash all about them. You even don’t recognize an emaciated Jackman as Valjean and get to sneer at Crowe as he walks a ledge above them as they taunt him…the taunts from below that eventually drive Javert to his suicidal death.
The story is really less about a group of revolutionary students being put down by the oppressive government, as it is about the inner-turmoil of both Valjean and Javert. Valjean is a paroled prisoner, who was sent away for 5 years for stealing bread so that his niece might survive the night (we never know if she does, and I often assume she doesn’t, driving his hatred for the law further) and then nearly 15 more for trying to escape. Now free, he discovers that he must reinvent himself to survive because nobody will give an ex-con a chance, a fate that often befalls many who have served their time. So he breaks parole and tries to live life on the lam from Inspector Javert who is obsessed with bringing him to justice. He successfully becomes a Mayor of a small town and runs the town factory–a seamstress factory presumably. It is there we encounter Fantine, who is fired from her job by one of Valjean’s underlings after a scuffle with her co-workers who have treated her unjustly. Forced to the streets to sell her body—and not just as a prostitute, she sells her hair and teeth too, to support her daughter, Fantine curses her life.
These three main characters are played brilliantly in the movie and we start with Anne Hathaway. There are several songs from the big screen that come to mind immediately: Judy Garland with “Over the Rainbow”, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, “As Time Goes By” in Casblanca, and who can forget, Gene Kelly “Singing in the Rain?”
Add one more to the list with Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” which is the highlight of the film. Hooper has his actors sing live instead of matching a lip synched version with a soundtrack and the results are unpredictably off the charts fantastic, but more so, with Hathaway’s haunting, chin-quiverring, tear soaked solo. She shows great acting chops here, as well as a great voice and probably has the Oscar for Best Actress wrapped up. Here’s some of it in the trailer.
It’s the biggest moment of the show, but it’s not the only highlight. Jackman as Valjean, initially left me a bit flat at the start of the film. He lacks a bit of depth and seems at times overmatched by the high falsettos required. Colm Wilkinson, who invented this role on stage has a cameo as the Bishop who saved Valjean and sends him off to become a better man. However, after the death of Fantine, Jackman comes into his own in the role, comforting the young Cosette and taking her into his care. It’s the sensitive Valjean that he plays well, while the haunted Valjean never heats up until we get to the barricades and the sewers.
Russell Crowe has a weaker voice than Jackman in general, but he over-delivers in this, capturing Inspector Javert perfectly. I’ve heard Crowe sing before and he’s often good and here his tones are a bit muted, but that fits the conflicted Javert well.
The surprise of the film comes in the form of Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius, the young revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette and who Valjean saves from harm so that he can care for her. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is believable, appropriately sad and well-acted and sung. His duet with Eponine “A Little Fall of Rain” (Played by Elizabeth Barks, who also starred in the role on stage and also shines here) is also well done. A nice surprise.
Less of a surprise but, a wonderful respite from the melancholy story is Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who play the Thenardiers, the so-called “Master of the House” and his wife. They have taken Cosette into their care but they abuse her and then try to shyster Valjean into overpaying for her after Fantine’s death. They are comic relief and not at the same time. “Wickedly delightful” is how I would describe the role and they both deliver well, Cohen especially. The cinematography here tries a bit too hard, but the acting is superb, especially when Cohen gets the child’s name wrong on several occasions.
Crowe shines in Javert’s suicide and for the first time, this character’s actions add up to his eventual choice. In previous versions it didn’t seem to make sense to me that Javert would choose to kill himself but, here Crowe makes the case both believable and haunting. He walks the tightrope on the ledge more than once providing great foreshadowing and excellent acting and singing. The fall into the water is gripping and is one of the places that the film takes advantage of the opportunity it provides over the stage version.
Lastly, there is the role of religion in the film. Besides the obvious of the Bishop’s forgiveness and Valjean’s running to the convent and the schmaltzy final words of Valjean “To love another person is to see the face of God” religion’s role is stronger here than in the stage version. Redemption is the central theme. What kind of God would have the poor suffer in such a way? As the students are slaughtered, including a horrid scene of a child being shot (Gavroche), one cannot help but think that the age old question not of why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people, but rather, why-do-GOOD-things-happen-to-BAD-people instead. Valjean on the run never really catches much of a break, while the hateful Javert lives shielded by law and order.
Forgiveness also runs through the film as a secondary theme. Fantine wants forgiveness from her daughter for placing her in harm’s way. Hathaway’s appreciation of Valjean seems to get him off the hook, albeit for Valjean’s inability to forgive himself for what he knows is an imperfect life despite his valor. It is only in Marius where Valjean can have redemption. The wide-eyed revolutionary who is too headstrong but has honor and a heart for the poor ends up back with his bourgeois family, but something seems to change both him and his family tree. Perhaps a light at the end of the tunnel, rests now in the prodigal son’s return to his family, now forever changed by the experience of nearly losing him? Or perhaps it is the realization that upholding the law does not equate to grace?
Whatever the case, we’ll not know from the film. But the Victor Hugo book explored that theme throughout and is well worth a re-visit.
Head out and catch the film, it’s well worth it. And not only will you hear the people sing, but you’ll find yourself doing that as well.
But as good as the film is, there’s nothing like the play.