1.21.2013

Les Misérables: The Movie, The Musical

What I mean is, ugly things can also be beautiful. A hawk swooping in to kill its prey is beautiful. A woman, stripped of all worldly cares and possessions, about to face her own death at the hands of a murderer, and who realizes that she is a poor soul in need of God's grace just as much as the man who is about to kill her, is beautiful ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). The Crucifixion is beautiful. But they're all, to certain degrees painful. Even ugly. Grace reclaims even that.
~Christie, in last Wednesday's combox on Brideshead Revisited

Christie's words returned to haunt me Saturday night during the dark, frosty walk from cinema to car. Schönberg's music still pounded in my head, my cheeks were still tacky and my eyes hot from crying, and the leftover meditative mood kept all of us to a slow pace.

I didn't expect to have to write a second superlative review in the space of one week, but the movie astounded me too thoroughly to go unmentioned here, and besides, I needed a Monday post. Apologies, therefore, if I seem to be in raving mode.

I'm not. It was just that good.

Not being a film critic but merely a writer, singer, and artist's daughter, I've got only armchair observations on the technical side of the making. Director Tom Hooper did remarkable work with The King’s Speech, but I thought he equaled or surpassed himself with Les Mis. It's well written for the screen; William Nicholson’s adaptation of the Boublil/Schönberg/Kretzmer script is flawless, as far as I can tell, though I’ve not seen the stage performance to miss the handful of things that were cut or changed.

The cinematography is on the grand scale and beautiful, even a little bit magical, though that last might be the effect of heavy use of CGI. Shot in an almost monochromatic blue, with thoughtful use of earth tones and strong red as accents, the images retain a hint of stage-play feel while—as with Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera—offering perspectives to the moviegoer that simply can't be had through the proscenium arch. There are especially stunning moments: Javert's patent leather shoes pacing the very edge of the high bridge wall, for instance; furniture thrown from windows in the making of the revolutionaries' barricade; Cosette among flowers behind the gate at Marius' first visit.

Hugh Jackman (left) as Jean Valjean
and Anne Hathaway as Fantine
AP Photo/Universal Pictures
The cast surprised me despite my high expectations. Jackman brought all the grim determination to Valjean that he brought to Wolverine in the X-Men movies, plus a superb compassion and gentleness. Hathaway, whom I'd mostly seen in romantic comedies like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, threw herself into Fantine's desperation. I was in tears nearly every time she was onscreen.

Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne—Cosette and Marius—were mostly new to me, but did quite credibly as the innocent-souled young lovers. Samantha Barks, strikingly beautiful and expressive, will probably always be my vision of Eponine. Child actors Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone floored me as young Cosette and Gavroche; I'm not sure how children learn how to act so convincingly so early, but Allen and Jackman displayed an exquisite father-daughter tenderness together, and Huttlestone stole the show every time the camera turned his way.

The Thénardiers could not have been better cast. Helena Bonham Carter is an astonishingly flexible actress; her roles have varied from sweet Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View to elegant Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech to crazed Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, with Mme. Thénardier loosely resembling the latter (that hair!) I know less of Sacha Baron Cohen's work, never having seen Borat—all the way through the movie I wondered why his face was so familiar—but he didn't hold back a thing as the thieving, garish "Master of the House". The pair brought a much-needed comic relief to the story.

The only actor I questioned was Russell Crowe, who comes off a shade too generous, I think, to be properly believable as the merciless Javert. On the other hand, Crowe's touch of noblesse oblige made Javert unusually sympathetic, which prevented me from questioning very much.

The vocals, recorded live during filming rather than in studios for lip-syncing on camera, were unadorned and unstylized, to sound like speech, in contrast to Broadway-standard tone and projection. This made the lyrics more immediately emotional, more accessible, and while I heard tones I didn’t like, the effect was lovely overall. Crowe has a firm, if not very dynamic voice; Redmayne hit just a hair off strident now and again, but made up for that with passion; Jackman was a touch thin in the high register, but his whole heart was in the music. I was too busy crying to find fault with Hathaway's vocals. I loved both Barks and Seyfried, as well as Allen's innocent, lovely rendition of "Castle on a Cloud."

The extended facial closeups of various actors singing passionately, often while in tears, came off a little awkward, though not nearly as bad as it could have been. If the emotions had been off in the slightest, it would have been more than usually uncomfortable. But Hathaway, Jackman, Redmayne and Barks, all of whom underwent the camera in the face, performed without a slip. Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is particularly gutwrenching.

Russell Crowe as Javert.
AP Photo/Universal Pictures/Laurie Sparham
There’s no nudity and comparatively little gore, but the horror of the deaths, the prostitution, the prison, and the turning of cold law upon Valjean and Fantine and the revolutionaries are not passed over lightly. It is hard to watch, hard to sit through without feeling vaguely guilty over comfortable theater seats and warm rooms and the fact of having plenty of food and clothing. Yet the suffering is reclaimed—as the story demands—by recourse to grace.

Which is why Christie's thoughts on painful beauty came back to me. For all Victor Hugo's spiritual wandering, this story is intensely, emotionally Christian, and for once Hollywood didn’t try to get in the way. It had been over ten years since I read the book, and I was thunderstruck by the lyrics, the scenes of prayer complete with candles and crucifixes, and the ending. The musical is impressively faithful to the novel, but if anything, it emphasizes the power of the bishop's gift to Jean Valjean more strongly than Hugo did.

For those who have never read the book or seen any of the adaptations thereof, the story may prove a bit challenging to follow. It may also be too much, emotionally speaking, for anyone dealing with extreme heaviness or sorrow in their own life.

Those are my only disclaimers. This was the first time in a couple of years that I felt that a movie was really worth the price of theater tickets.

The problem with claiming that a film is astoundingly good is that most of us respond to such reviews by plopping down in a theater seat and saying, eagerly, "Astound me!"—which often means coming away disappointed. So maybe it's better to go in with low expectations. Seize on your dislike for whichever of the actors you've never cared for. Imagine obvious computer effects and way-too-intimate photography. Remind yourself just how dang unhappy the story is. Whatever you need to think about. Just don't let it actually stop you from going.

Go with someone you're comfortable crying with, though.

18 comments:

  1. Thank you for a review, Jenna, that does justice to this fine film! I, too, loved it very much and came away from the film with cheeks sticky from hot tears. Anne Hathaway deserved every bit of her Golden Globe for best supporting actress--her Fantine was a performance for the ages. I sobbed at her "I Dreamed a Dream" and again at the end when she appears to a dying Jean Val Jean. And yes, the child actors were astoundingly good, especially Gavroche. Ditto on the adult Eponine, who was perfect in that role. It was heartbreaking to see her response to Marius's interest in Cosette and to see her facilitate his meeting her despite her jealousy. There is so much redemption through love in this tale, which is why I love it so much (like Harry Potter!).

    For how much I love this singing film version, I love even more the film version with Liam Neeson as Val Jean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert. Rush IS Javert, and always will be. Crowe was solid, but I think you put your finger on why his Javert was not exactly on. Javert is a Kantian, which leaves no room for virtuous emotion, only duty, nothing more or less. As we see Val Jean say repeatedly to Javert in the film, "You're only doing your duty."

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    1. Yay, a fellow fangirl! :D

      Oh, yeah, I totally lost it at the death of Valjean and the reappearances there. Very, very well done all around. And I'm with you on Eponine and the redemption through love.

      You know, the Liam Neeson version was what convinced me to read the book in the first place. I remember loving it. I can't recall much of Neeson's performance to contrast with Jackman's, but I do remember Rush getting Javert exactly right. I also remember thinking, later, "Hey, that film didn't quite stick to the novel." On the other hand, it had a happier ending for Valjean. :P

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    2. I read that the boy who played Gavroche played him on the stage in London as well. He and the girl playing Young Cosette were very good.

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  2. Fantastic review. I've pretty much heard nothing but good things about Les Mis. Even the criticisms are somewhat gentle & understanding.

    I started the book once & gave up on it rather quickly. The only film adaptation I've seen was the 1978 one starring Richard Jordan & Anthony Perkins. Highly condensed & no singing, although I liked it. Unfortunately it probably won't be until next week until I can make time to see the movie. Even then, sometimes I just wait for things to come out on Amazon Instant Video & then rent the movie.

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    1. ...yeah, I usually wait for things to come out on video, too.

      I thought this one was worth seeing in the theater just because the filming was so artsy and beautiful. It's never quite the same on a computer screen. But then, that's just me and my penchant for pretty camera work. :)

      I've never seen the 1978 adaptation. Sounds like there are a few good ones out there.

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  3. What a lovely review! Very well said, and I tend to agree with what you've said. Though I thought everyone did a good job with the singing, it was like the quality of the vocals was secondary to the emotion being portrayed. It felt right for this movie - it made the action so much more raw and vivid and real.

    I just saw this last weekend, and wrote about it as part of my Monday meme, <a href="http://inkandpage.me/songs-of-the-week-1-21-2013-musicmonday/Songs of the Week.</a>

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  4. I saw Les Mis last night. Last night it was in my local theater. Soooo glad I went.

    I'm just going to say this unashamedly & unapologetically: The story of Christianity beats, hands down, any other story on earth for its message of grace & mercy & the redemptive power thereof. More so because it is a true story, the true story. Chesterton, Tolkien, & Lewis are right when they say every other story is either anticipating Christianity, borrowing from it, or looking back to it.

    Which makes it all the more surprising that Victor Hugo, who was very anti-clerical, & Hollywood would tap into that story so well & be able to express it so movingly. That the crux of the story would be a bishop of all people! Boggles the mind.

    As you said so well, Jenna, Hollywood, for once, didn't get in the way & nailed it in a way they utterly failed to do with something more explicitly Christian like The Chronicles of Narnia. The repeated imagery of crosses & the constant return to the candlesticks just drove it all home.

    Getting teary eyed just thinking about it. The acting & singing I thought superb. I really didn't mind Crowe. Jackman was outstanding. I was crying all through Valjean's Soliloquy. Hathaway, words fail at her performance. The young Cosette's song. Marius' Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Barks was stellar as Eponine. Bonham Carter, brilliant as always. Cohen, eh, I wouldn't have taken to him in a serious part but as a slimy buffoon he worked. Gavroche & the other revolutionaries. It all worked for me.

    If every single person involved in this film doesn't get an Academy Award, there will be no justice in the world, or at least in the film industry.

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    1. It's astonishing, that brilliant and colorful image you get when you glimpse Christianity at the center of all things. :)

      I'm so glad you went and saw the movie! It's so worth getting the big screen experience. Great observations on all counts. As far as I'm concerned, the film deserves every Academy/Oscar/whatever it gets. ;)

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  5. Some more random thoughts on the movie.

    There's another Harry Potter connection besides Bonham Carter. One of the factory workers, the one who pushes for Fantine to be thrown out, is Kate Fleetwood who played Mary Cattermole in Deathly Hallows Part 1. I could swear she looked familiar when watching the movie but couldn't place her.

    Also regarding the movie in general, when you have good material & good actors, less becomes more. Most themes or episodes in the movie get pushed across with only one or two songs at most. Valjean's redemption at the beginning, Fantine's degradation, Cosette's neglected abused life with the Thenardiers, etc, etc.

    Also on the power of movies to shape our perceptions and sympathies. Regarding the revolutionaries, we're led to sympathize & support their goals while the agents of the government are the bad guys. And yet it wasn't so long past in French history that similar revolutionaries took power seeking to help the poor & promoting liberty, equality, & fraternity, & then ended up guillotining thousands & spreading war all across Europe.

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    1. Haha--I thought she looked familiar, too, but thought that was only because I know someone who looks just like her. ;P

      It's amazing how much they were able to get across with a few song lines. And as for your last paragraph... you're right, and I suppose it's cynical to suggest that that's pretty much how all story works? Create sympathy here, destroy it there? At least I'm in good company, since there was a Cracked piece on that awhile back. Also, there's the fact of Hugo being just plain weird on some things. He's probably rolling over in his grave because the musical didn't contain an ten-minute song and dance about the awesomeness of Napoleon. :P

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    2. Yeah, a brief excursus on the awesomeness of Napoleon would've been interesting but also awkward. :)

      Another thing to mention is the simple awesomeness of music to stir one's soul & fire the emotions. It's a powerful, magical thing but it can also be dangerous.

      Anyway, to quote Dumbledore, "Music! A magic beyond anything we do here."

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    3. True. And I love the point about music! Also the Dumbledore quote. ;)

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  6. Finally making my way over here to share a few thoughts about this movie...

    I preface this by saying I am a Les Mis fangirl through and through. I believe I saw it three times on Broadway. Had a VHS tape of the 10th Anniversary Concert performance (more on this below). And, I even performed in the American premier of the High School Edition right after I graduated from high school (I was ensemble, which included the lovely resume credit of "Whore #1" :-p). So I inevitably went into this with colored expectations for vocals, and yet also did my best to lay them aside to appreciate the movie for what it is, in its genre. With all this in mind, I can say unabashedly that I loved it, and it will become a family classic for us, no doubt about it.

    I don't want my comment to go all over the place, so I will try to respond to some of what's been discussed above. Hathaway's Fantine was flawless...which is a big deal coming from me, since she wouldn't be able to carry the singing in a live theater on stage. But again, I set those expectations aside as they would have been silly to carry into the movie theater. When I went over her 20 minutes or so of screen time after the fact, I realized I could think of not one thing to complain about. She broke my heart.

    Jackman carried the film. I think the first 20 minutes of the movie, and the last 10, are by far the crystallizing moments of his story and Jackman delivered them tremendously. He deserves the Academy Award for this, as does Hathaway. And the Director, Tom Hooper.

    I had no major problems with Crowe, and was sad after the fact to realize how critical folks have been about his vocals, when really he did quite fine. The only technical thing he would have benefited from is enunciating a bit more. But otherwise the director made a few choices to bring out Javert's backstory, which we miss a bit in the stage version as it is sung at the same time as Valjean is singing during their "Confrontation" song. Seeing this backstory spelled out a bit more (Javert giving a dead Gavroche his medal brought this home for me--I sobbed) was very effective and Crowe carried it well.

    ***LOL so I went over the character limit for a comment here. More from me below.***

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  7. ***Part 2 of my comment:***

    I mourn the composed music for adult Cosette, which is written for an expressive soprano. Seyfried didn't have the vocal chops for the role in this respect. BUT again, I didn't expect her to (though it helped that I heard her sing in a YouTube clip before seeing the movie so I got over my sadness about this beforehand, otherwise it likely would have distracted me from the story in the moment). She acted the part beautifully, and there's no denying the fact that she has the look of innocence and beauty needed for the character, as she is Valjean's new reason to live after his promise to Fantine.

    One response to something discussed above, about folks' surprise that Hollywood didn't mess with the Christian meaning at the heart of this story. Hollywood wouldn't dare because, in this case, this film had a tremendous following before it was shot: the theatergoers who have seen this show live multiple times between the 1980s and now, whether it be on Broadway or regionally. We (because it includes me) expected the story in tact when brought to the screen. It's Hollywood's sad luck that in this case what they had was a powerfully popular story that happened to be completely and utterly Christian. Thank God for it.

    And finally, I want to share a jewel of a tidbit that no one mentioned above. The actor who played the bishop, Colm Wilkinson, originated the role of Valjean on the stage. He is who theatre folk think of when they think of Jean Valjean. It was so beautiful and moving to see him portray the bishop in the movie. And the bishop's return in the finale, to greet Valjean as he enters his glory...this was actually a change from the stage version, since in the stage version it is Eponine with Fantine at that moment and the three of them sing the trio in harmony. At first I was sad to see Eponine absent until I saw the bishop, which was so much more moving for two reasons: 1) vocally, Colm rocked the low alto part of the three way harmony, and, 2) it is theologically more meaningful this way because the first time Valjean "sees the face of God" in his wretched life is in the face of the bishop, and here the bishop is at Valjean's passing from death into life (it's shot to indicate that Valjean sees the bishop here and, basically, sees God--I burst into tears at this).

    But with the above in mind, I share my one minor criticism of Jackman, and of course it has to do with vocals (sorry!). A lot of Valjean's part is written to be sung falsetto (falsetto = vulnerability), but I noticed Jackman made a decision not to sing this way at these parts. I don't criticize the decision---he may not have had it in him to do it falsetto and that's fine. But, I wanted to share with the folk here at Jenna's wonderful blog the song "Bring Him Home" as performed by Colm Wilkinson (the movie's bishop), using his Irish tenor voice to full effect, so you have an idea of what an alternative vocal interpretation of the song/part might sound like: (Please note I'm not sharing this to compare Wilkinson and Jackman; I'm sharing it because it is beautiful in its own way for its own sake, and in a different way than what we saw in the film. That's all.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsYnhVITf9E

    (I highly recommend the 10th Anniversary Concert if you like the story as told through this musical.)

    So much more I could say but I'll reign this in for now. Thank you for your wonderful review, Jenna. I think it's spot on.

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    1. COOL. I'd never seen the musical, so it's great to hear from someone who was so familiar with it! And yeah, people have been too harsh on Crowe, especially his voice. Though in the moment, at least, I wasn't bothered by Seyfried either. That might have been just that I enjoy a high, sweet tone so much.

      I didn't know that about Colm Wilkinson! But oh, did I cry when he reappeared... yes, as you say, that was lovely. Perfect, really. A more story-satisfying choice than Eponine.

      Thanks for the movie link. I'll try and watch it shortly--can't at the moment because I'm on my way to bed right now, but hopefully tomorrow. I do love a good tenor.

      Great comments!

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    2. I did know about Wilkinson, but only from reading the wikipedia on the movie. And I was crying too when the Bishop reappeared at the end.

      I can see your point on how Hollywood had to bring across, whether they wanted to or not, the Christian message. Having the repeated theater & musical performances does make it different than the Chronicles of Narnia in that respect.

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  8. I just watched it. Wow. You're right. This is the most Catholic film to come out of Hollywood since The Passion.

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    1. And I think even way better than The Passion because it slips the primary themes & truths of Christianity past sleeping dragons, as it were. Hopefully preparing the way for people to see The Passion with more open eyes.

      Just finished watching the movie for the second time last night. It still rocks!

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