Les Miserables is a beautiful story and has withstood many interpretations and productions. Somehow, even with the disturbing zeal to bury the story of redemption in the 1998 previous feature film, by Billie August and Rafael Yglesias, it retained portions of the thrilling hope of Victor Hugo's 1,500 page novel.
It is the musical, however, that took the story and shamelessly dug out the themes and belted out the epic of grace and forgiveness across 42 countries in 21 languages. Last year marked the 25th anniversary. A new live performance traveled through Cinemas and a breathing cast appeared in concert halls throughout England and the US. Tom Hooper was working on his mountainous task--turning the well-beloved musical into movie. Something that would explain and present the story to thousands who'd never heard it, as well as die-hard, jealous fans. He is pretty crazy.
The finished product exploded on Christmas Day. Tom Hooper and our grand knight, Sir Cameron Macintosh, once again proved themselves (above and beyond Peter Jackson and other ambitious individuals who seize a powerful story in new love and best intentions and flail to present it to the public, missing and mutating the very elements that probably attracted them...ahem. We still love them anyway).
This new musical movie of Les Miserables presents the story in all of its gritty, offensive love, grace, and hope. With melody, words, and screen, the movie is able to highlight and draw out the beautiful symbolism and themes, something many of us haven't trained ourselves to do on our own. You forget you're in a musical and only find yourself in a grand epic which is, at the same time, the personal story of each of us. This rendition was done in an adventurous way, all of the singing recorded during filming and on set, much of it straight at the audience. The factory women accuse us. Fantine begs us. There is no sparing our emotions or allowing us to hold it at arm's length--all the grit and the grace are right there, sometimes yelling, sometimes drawing us into the screen.
With all it's realism, it goes a little far, making the movie harder to enthusiastically recommend. As you could expect, the scenes with dissolutes and prostitutes lead to unnecessary content when performed as a complete screenplay. There is at least sixty seconds that none of us needed, even if it jolts us out of our comfortable, clean ignorance or indifference to things occurring today in our own cities...
Anne Hathaway gives everything she has to her performance of Fantine and left me absolutely speechless. Even if you are a Hathaway hater (which I have been) you have to admire how much of herself she pours into this character. Yeah...still pretty speechless on this.
Hugh Jackman also dug into his role. If you cringe at his voice at the beginning, it is because he starved himself to look and feel more like a laboring convict for the first shot. He improves over time and while there have been better voices, I whole-heartedly adore his Jean Valjean (even if you dread "Bring Him Home"). His soliloquy and last scene sacrifice things that can very well be sacrificed to bleed all the soul and life and struggle and longing. Outstanding.
But even with all his superb acting, Hugh Jackman is not Colm Wilkinson, so for dedicated Les Miserables fans, Wilkinson's appearance as the Priest is both exciting and satisfying. It also gloriously draws out how, through the Priest's kindness, Jean Valjean turns and becomes like the Priest. How Christ sacrifices and cares for us--recreates us into little Christs becoming more like Himself, and sends us out to show His Character and grace to the world.
Also this should comfort Les Miserables zealots and please Colm Wilkinson fans.
Aside from the live performance, Aaron Tveit was the best Enjolras I've seen. He probably didn't have the best voice, but all his vibes were spot on. I fell in love with the whole revolution preparation scene in a completely new way. His life and complete character--how it was contrasted and shown against others and how he inspired and loved his brothers, may have been my favorite and freshest part of the movie. Some may say his end was a little over the top, but if you dig into many historical biographies, you can find that many endings are similarly over the top and ridiculously epic.
Marius was a great rich kid. Cosette, despite deep-rooted loathing for Amanda Seyfried, may have been my favorite interpretation yet. Both seemed appropriately unlikable and newbish at the beginning but hopeful characters by the end. They were presented as I saw them in the story.
Although Eddie Redmayne's voice does not reach godlike status (who can compare with Micheal Ball?), his "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" is acted and sung in a way to wring your heart.
I'd seen Samantha Barks as Eponine before, but this screen version made me sympathize and fall in love with the character for the first time. And, unlike much of the cast, I have no hesitations about her voice.
The true test came with Javert. My first introduction to the Les Miserables musical came from Philip Quast version of Javert's soliloquy. It instantly rocked my world and has continued to do so ever after. The character of Javert created my original love and devotion to the story many years before and has probably influenced me above and beyond just my writing.
All my backstory with the Inspector made Russell Crowe's performance imperative to any joy or horror I would get out of the movie. His first singing attempt actually was a little distressing. He improves over time and does interesting interpretations of his two solos. His acting is phenomenal and I feel like he really entered into the character and understood him. His performance is almost as opposite to Norm Lewis as anyone with the same lines can present. Russell Crowe paints a more passive character with considerably less gleeking and more unspoken conflict. He is a little soft, in all respects, but I actually loved his embodiment of so complex a character. Of course, he is not the only right and perfect portrait and his voice, even with everything else he adds to the character, is nothing exceptional and still cannot be compared to Philip Quast.
The scene right before Javert starts his soliloquy was disappointing. They switch it up so Jean Valjean leaves basically in defiance (also, covered in a little too intense of sewerness). I understand how this might have made the scene switches and all easier, but it was almost an unforgivable sin.
The only other dissatisfying scene for me was the end. Although when you learn the history, the last scene makes more sense, even a successful revolution hardly gives Fantine, Gavroche, or Valjean the hope and deliverance they need and long for. This finale piece is much bigger and seemed trivialized and disconnected from the thirst we all have and the song of victorious hope in the souls of all who have been driven to the light. A disappointing scene to finish a glorious story. But perhaps if they'd wrapped it up in all it's heart-throbbing glory no one would have been able to walk out of the theater alive.
Of course there are portions left out and others jumbled. There is a new song and theme added written by the original creators who were all involved with the movie. The new content highlights Jean Valjean and Cosette's father/daughter relationship. It feels almost Disneyish in a few moments, but gives a break from the intensity of the rest of the movie. I already had mountainous respect for Tom Hooper and now it will last forever. What a massive task to turn a successful musical into a cohesive, powerful screenplay. The hard work and dedication by the entire cast and crew is unbelievable.
There will be more Les Miserables, some which will perhaps dig deeper and soar higher, but this movie captures the spirit, raw soul, and devastating grace. The best stories can and should be told in many ways, shapes, and forms. If you can deal with the grit or know when to go get a popcorn refill, go see it.
Come back and tell me what you think. :-)
There is so much more that can be said. Hopefully Lauren will say some of it soon. If you go see it, look for crosses (obvious and camouflaged), new creation/covenant and old world/covenant themes, reoccurring musical melodies, and contrasting reactions and characters.
Artists be encouraged. Work done this well and with such a proclamation of truth will last, spread, and send tremors throughout the world. We are changed by just such things as these.