Movies: Les Misérables

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Directed By: Tom Hooper
Written By: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer (screenplay); Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schönberg (musical); Victor Hugo (novel)
Universal, 2012
PG-13; 158 min
4.5 stars (out of 5)


Let me start by saying I've never seen the musical.

As a freshman in Honors English Lit, we were required to read the novel (unabridged), and I hated it, so I steadfastly have avoided seeing the stage version. My thinking always having been, God, why put myself through it again?

I have many friends in theatre, and many who love Les Miz. But no arguments they could make in favor ever swayed me.

Now, though, having seen the film . . . I might like to see it on stage.

So what convinced me to see the movie if I hated the book and wouldn't go see the musical? Honestly, the trailers I saw last year made me want to try it. And then it kept winning awards, so I figured I really had to see it then.

I had managed over the years to forget (or block) most of the subtleties of the story. I remembered that Jean Valjean got thrown in prison for stealing bread, and I remembered he came out and made good for himself and adopted Cosette. And that he was still being pursued by Javert, though I couldn't remember why exactly. (I also remembered that one of the school projects regarding the book had us casting a potential film, and my group had chosen Patrick Stewart for Jean Valjean. But Jackman was good, too.)

Somehow, though, I'd managed to forget the whole bit with the Revolution (though I knew the story took place during that time) and the barricade and Marius and so on. And really, that was the least interesting bit of the film, too, though I understand that on stage the production is amazing.
Truth is, Les Misérables is pretty depressing. Not because of the central story, which (without giving too much away) leaves a viewer with hope and a bit of faith—something I don't really remember feeling when having read the book, but then again we've also just seen how I don't remember a huge chunk of the story either—but the setting, which for Hugo was the world as he lived it, was a bit dismal. I mostly sat through the film realizing how comfortable I am in my life, and being grateful I don't have to worry whether or not I can feed my children. By whatever Providence, I was lucky or blessed enough to be born and raised, and to live in a country—and in a strata—that at least has enough. And there are still such huge parts of the world, and also people right here in my own nation, who are not so lucky.

In that sense, then, Les Miz can make the viewer a bit uncomfortable (assuming the viewer is at all introspective and/or self-aware). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's also not why most people go to see a movie or musical.

Of course, if they're going to see something that in effect is named "The Miserable Ones," they've probably asked for it.

The film itself, then, is quite an accomplishment. Mostly very beautifully done, though the matte paintings in the background were a tad distracting. The singing was . . . uneven. I wanted Javert to be more forceful. I felt like Russell Crowe couldn't quite commit himself to playing the role of "bad guy." But the thing about Javert as a character is, he doesn't think he's the bad guy. Not until the end. He thinks he's the hero. So I wanted more conviction from Crowe, particularly when singing those solo numbers.

Jackman did a lovely job, and Hathaway owned her few minutes on screen. I was less impressed with Seyfried and Redmayne as Cosette and Marius.

I think themes of faith in God (Valjean) and faith in the law of man (Javert) are interesting ones to explore. But I also think the reduction here of the complexities of the French Revolution are kind of a shame. There was so much more to it than simple class warfare. I won't go into a history lesson here, but my father's family left France just in time to keep their heads from getting cut off, so . . . I'll admit I may have some personal bias in the issue.

Also interesting is how Marius drops his revolutionary ideas and goes back to being happily wealthy once all his friends die and he has a rich bride on his arm. Um . . . So faith, yes, but also money. After all, Valjean gained his faith after the bishop was kind to him . . . But he still took the silver and used it to start a new life. The more things (and people) change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Jean Valjean was a good man to start with, trying to save his sister's son by stealing bread to keep them from starving. And he becomes a better man once he has the funds to help others more overtly. But maybe Javert isn't entirely wrong either, since Valjean does change his stripes—but only by painting over them.

I didn't mean for this write-up to become an essay, so I'll sum up by saying it was a solid movie that gives anyone with enough interest something to think about and discuss. And it was a good enough movie to somewhat diminish my early hatred for the source material.

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