Go see this movie.
- If you’ve never seen the stage play, this is the way to catch a faithful version of it in your local cinema.
- If you’ve already seen the stage play, then you already know. It was more than I expected, and I had high expectations.
This is the moving story of the power of redemption. A century and a half ago, Victor Hugo wrote about how forgiveness turned a convict into a benefactor, how returning good for evil changed anger into love, how trust transformed a man who knew nothing but hate into a brother, how a bishop’s blessing touched a man who was just a number, knowing only a life of darkness and shame, to escape that world begin another story as that of a man who had a soul.
This epic story traces the lives of two men: Jean Valjean imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread for his nephew and Javert, a man born in jail who rose from the gutter to become a lawman who has chased Jean Valjean across the years from prison to Paris. It is a story of biblical themes: the characteristics of law vs. grace, justice vs. mercy. The story culminates at the ill-fated student revolt of the June Rebellion in Paris of 1832 — often mistaken by patrons of the musical as the French Revolution of 1789. Hugo himself experienced the armed student uprising in Paris 40 years before he published his novel in 1862 while he was writing a play in the Tuileries Gardens there. Ironically, 40 years ago I experienced the student riots at Berkeley when I was a student there.
The Book, Play, Movies
- The Novel
Victor Hugo’s novel, 14 years in the writing was published 150 years ago becoming a huge hit in French as well as other languages and was one of the most important books of the 19th century. Published in America in English during the time of the Civil War it was widely read by soldiers and officers. General Robert E. Lee‘s troops called themselves “Lee’s Miserables” as a tribute to the book they were reading.
- The Musical
The musical theatre play, based on a French concept album and short running Paris sports arena show, premiered at the Barbican Theatre in London in 1985 and has become a record-breaking worldwide hit, showing to 60 million attendees, in thousands of performances in 300 cities around the world as the longest-running musical of all time. I first saw it 24 years ago in San Francisco. I was not used to operatic productions but had no trouble following the story. I was stunned, however, but the impact it had on me, leaving me in tears. I had to see it again a couple of months later. Same impact.
I have seen the musical six times since then in Denver, New York (good), and London (the best). It always leaves me in tears. One time, when I saw it on Broadway in New York, I waited after the show at the stage door to have Jean Valjean sign my program. He signed it “24601” the prison number he played, saying no one could read his signature. Colm Wilkinson played the original Jean Valjean in London and on Broadway. One of the nice touches in this movie is that he plays the pivotal role of the bishop who says to Jean Valjean that his act of mercy toward the ex-convict “has saved your soul for God.” Wilkinson was also the original Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and the original Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. He is one of only two actors in this film to have been in a previous production of the musical play.
- The Movies
There have been over a dozen movie and TV versions of the story from the 1934 French version, to the well-known 1935 English version with Fredrick March and Charles Laughton to the well-known 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. I have found the 1998 movie lacking fidelity to the original book — like the current movie version of The Hobbit, see my review here. None of them quite conveyed the emotional impact or vitality of the musical.
- This Movie
This movie draws the stark distinction between two men: one who receives mercy and is redeemed, another who rejects it and is doomed. For the most part, it was successful and for the first time successfully translates the musical theatre production to the screen. It was a long wait and worth it. Tom Hooper, who gave us The King’s Speech and the TV mini-series John Adams delivers again. While it does not work on all levels, it is well worth your time to see it, because it’s that good. Where it misses it is excusable. Why? Gone are the days of the “triple threat” where performers could sing, dance, and act.
Nowadays, movies are cast for acting power, not singing power. Consequently, some of the solos by the principal characters in the first act leave a bit to be desired. Nevertheless, they’re satisfying and Hooper’s choice to do live recordings of each take makes it vibrant and immediate, conveying emotional impact if not spot-on musical notes.
The pacing is brisk considering it was a 1,500-page novel, in the original French it was 1,900 pages. It’s more faithful to the novel than the musical play while maintaining pacing momentum.
Hugh Jackson/Jean ValJean: He has singing experience on Broadway winning a Tony in “The Boy from Oz” and has other leading singing roles in “Carousel” and “Back on Broadway.” Though not outstanding in my estimation as a singer, he brought a new and original interpretation to Jean Valjean, and admittedly had to deal with a diverse range in this production. His performance in the high tenor prayer “Bring Him Home” was impressive.
Russell Crowe/Javert: While he performed in his own bands: 30 Odd Foot of Grunts” and “The Ordinary Fear of God” most moviegoers would rather see him with a sword in his hand than a song on his lips. His solos were serviceable but weak. His first, “Stars” before the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris looked sounded like he was phoning it in, his last song, behind Notre Dame on the Pont de l’Archeveche (Archbishop Bridge), was more dramatic. However, I still felt it was a casting coup to select Crowe, he conveyed a sense of menace and threat that was palpable.
Anne Hathaway/Fantine: This actress who I first remember seeing in “The Princess Diaries” was the real surprise. Of the lead characters, she had the best voice. Bringing a new interpretation to such a popular song as “I Dreamed a Dream” was difficult, but she pulled it off. Her anger and rage at life’s disappointments made it impossible to look away from the dark and dirty surroundings. The earliest teaser preview of this film featured this song and brought tears to my eyes. It proved to be a showstopper in this movie. At this point, the film pivots as Valjean recognizes he must make good on his promise to the bishop to care for Fantine’s daughter Cossette.
For the most part, the other characters in the story gave excellent singing performances. Notably:
Samantha Barks/Eponine: She is one of only a handful of singers in this movie who have been in a theatre production of Les Miz. She performed in the 25th Anniversary Concert of this show in London and her singing here is outstanding. In the American musical versions of the play, I saw a decade or so ago, the part of Eponine is usually sung by a former “Annie” who sings nasally reminiscent of “Tomorrow”. This is not true of versions I’ve seen in the West End of London where they don’t put on British accents, as American versions do. The British Barks version of “On My Own” was a real crowd pleaser and makes you believe she’s lovesick over Marius.
Eddie Redmayne/Marius: Recently seen in the film “My Week with Marilyn” he did a better job than I usually expect in this role. The role of Marius is usually cast with a pretty boy and a pretty voice, but Redmayne could really send it, he’s the best Marius I’ve seen. He did his audition for the film on his iPhone, recording it during a break in a movie he was in. I previously saw him in the London production of “Oliver” (starring Jonathan Pryce as Fagan.) Redmayne starred in “Red” and won an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The show went on to Broadway where he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play.
Amanda Seyfried/Cosette: this role is small, serving to show the grown-up young woman/love interest of Marius. You’ve seen her in the movie version of “Mamma Mia” where she also sings (see my review here). She can sing, but not strongly. Her performance in Mamma Mia is the weakest of any of the six live performances I’ve seen of the musical. In this movie she’s beautiful and her voice is high and rather thin. But most probably won’t notice, as her duets with Redmayne work.
Aaron Tveit/Enjorlas: with a strong stage background as well as films and television. His delivery of the leading revolutionary in the film was excellent, and he stuck closest to the “canonical” stage version in his delivery. While the big stars tend to speak/sing their songs — which might disappoint some musical theatre fans — Aaron is spot on.
Alistair Brammer/Jean Pouvaire: this is the role of the well-spoken romantic drinking revolutionary who begins the bittersweet song “Drink With Me” and teases Marius that he’s a Don Juan for being in love with Cossette. He performed as well in the 25th Anniversary London cast.
Sacha Baron Cohen/Thenardier: usually known for his over-the-top comedy movies he played a sympathetic inspector in last year’s “Hugo” by Martin Scorcese. He was cast in this film, not for his French accent nor singing quality but instead, to chew up each scene he was in. He succeeded, but his singing was unremarkable.
Helena Bonham Carter/Madam Thenardier: she burst into our conscience as the beautiful young Lucy Honeychurch in the 1985 Merchant Ivory “A Room With a View” and last year as the Queen mum in “The King’s Speech.” But for the most part, she’s been picking deliberately unattractive roles for years, often in her husband Tim Burton’s films. Some include the murderous Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and the evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” movies. In this movie, she plays the repulsive and selfish wife of the “Master of the House,” Madam Thenardier. It’s an unattractive role, to be sure, and her performance meets that need. The songs by the Thenardiers usually bring the house down as vulgar comic pieces. They’re less amusing in this movie version though.
In summary, this is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen a lot of films. It is also my favorite musical play, and I’ve been to a lot of those too. I’ve waited almost half my life for this movie. Watch for it at the Oscars. Months ago, I was teaching a class when the subject of “redemption” came up. I told them to go see Les Miserables when it came out to really understand the concept. I think it’s the most powerful thing in the world.
You’ll like it if: you appreciate movie musicals, powerful stories, epic novels, and big-name stars singing so they can hear it outside.
You won’t like it if: operatic music is not your cup of tea, or the ugly reality of the poor of 19th century Paris is too much to stomach.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture