Saturday, January 5, 2013

Les Miserables: A Movie Review

So the movie version of Les Miserables has finally arrived! I am not as huge a Les Mis fanatic as some people I know, (my little sister is completely obsessed with the score) but I do know the story quite well. I listened to most of the book on audio as a kid, and vaguely leafed through the massive tome at least once. I own two movie versions (non-musical) and I have spent my fair share of time watching segments of the anniversary concerts on youtube, so I was pretty excited to see it. I was skeptical about the leads. I knew that Hugh Jackman had gotten his start in musical theater, but I didn’t know that Russel Crowe could even sing, and thus far I had not liked Anne Hathaway in any movie I had seen her in. Not that I couldn’t stand her, I just was completely unimpressed.

I did not see the movie right away. I watched it about a week after it came out, and then again less than a week later, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

I am not going to provide a synopsis of the story, only say that it follows the life and redemption of an ex-con and parole-breaker named Jean Valjean, as he struggles to live a good life in mid-revolutionary France, relentlessly pursued by his ex-guard Javert.

First, the actors:

Hugh Jackman, in my opinion, was a complete and total failure. His acting is fair to middling, unequal to the depth of character required to do justice to that part, his pitch is terrible, and he sings through his nose with a terrible faux vibrato throughout. The sung-dialogue sounds stilted and artificial, and the large musical numbers lack any semblance of vocal control. So the leading man was a huge strike against the movie. Fortunately the story is so beautiful and the rest of the acting and storytelling was so well done that they managed to carry a mediocre performance and in the end it did no harm.

Russel Crowe, as Valjean’s nemesis Javert, did slightly better. Again, acting and singing at the same time is not really his forte, so the sung dialogue was often painful to listen to. Javert’s biggest musical number is “Stars” in which he describes his vision of justice and vows to follow Valjean to the death if necessary to bring him back to prison. The director chose an interesting vehicle for the song, having him pacing back and forth on the edge of a balcony next to a giant stone eagle, overlooking the city of Paris, which was a powerful visual metaphor for his vision of law. There is no room in his worldview for deviation, sin, or human weakness. There is only the straight and narrow. Russel Crowe’s physical acting was perfect for the part, giving the impression of a bitter, dedicated, driven man, with a strong undercurrent of aggression. He is potentially a violent man, willing to kill without hesitation or remorse, simply because he believes so unflinchingly in the rightness of his cause. Unfortunately, Russel Crowe seemed to lack the fire the song seems to call for, and instead softly crooned most of it to the rooftops of a sleeping city. Other than that, I thought his performance was excellent and only got better as the movie continued.

I admit that I had very low expectations of Anne Hathaway as the prostitute Fantine. Honestly, I was pretty sure she would fall flat on her face. To my surprise and utter delight, she not only did not flop, she carried the part with perfect vocal and emotional pitch, from desperate factory worker, to destitute selling her hair and teeth to pay for her daughter’s medicine, to unwilling prostitute, to a woman on her deathbed, half crazy, delirious and emotionally shattered. Her reprise at the end (which I will not describe, if you haven’t seen it) was the most amazing and triumphant moment I have seen in a movie in a long time. Well done!

The odd thing is that the farther down the list of actors we go, the better they get. Samantha Barks appeared in the movie, reprising her stage role as Eponine, a street urchin who tragically falls in love with a revolutionary who barely notices that she exists. There is a definite incongruity between her look and the part. At one point in the movie her revolutionary love interest grips her arm with his hand, and the visual contrast is almost comical. That is a woman who works out! Not that her bicep is grotesquely huge, or even remotely masculine. She is, and looks like, a very fit woman in her mid to late twenties (I have no idea how old she actually is) not at all like a half starved street waif. Apart from that physical disparity, she played the role beautifully, constantly watching from the shadows, moving things behind the scenes, very much in love and totally unnoticed.

Eddie Redmayne (I have no idea who he is apart from this movie) played an excellent Marius. He captured perfectly the character of a naïve, idealistic, passionate and ultimately stupid revolutionary student. Likewise his friend and ringleader Enjolras was perfectly done. All fire and hot headed idealism, no patience and no common sense. Most of the best musical moments in the movie involved these two and their band of young idealists.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the criminal innkeepers, the Thenardiers, were equal parts revolting and comical, nauseating and hilarious. On the one hand they portray the vice, greed, and criminality endemic in the underworld of society. On the other hand they provide some much needed comic relief to what would otherwise be an overly emotional and dramatic story.

And of course, no character list would be complete without Gavroche. Played with childish bravado by Daniel Huttlestone, the little street boy with some serious mojo hangs out with the university students and becomes all too willingly sucked into their revolutionary plans.

Visually the movie was stunning. The sets were amazing, the physical acting and storytelling was thoughtful and meaningful throughout. I thought the editing was a little rushed at the very beginning, but there is a difference between a movie musical and a theater musical. In theater the audience is composed of either die hard musical fans or die hard Les Mis fans, and they will give you the time to tell the story. In a movie time is on a budget, and they had to get the story going before the audience lost interest, and at 157 minutes it is already pushing the attention span of many movie-goers. The pace was ironed out by the second half of the movie as the scope of the story unfolds and comes to its conclusion.

There has been some furor over moral content among Christian movie reviewers, particularly the immodesty and sexual content. Some have even gone so far as to say that Christians should not see it because of this. That, of course is too broad a topic for a movie review. Instead, let’s just talk about the movie itself.

Let’s be frank, here. This is a story about mid-19th century France, and the evils of that society form a huge part of the moral content of the story. Valjean walks a thin line between the strict, unbending legalism of Javert on the one hand and the vice and squalor that Javert seeks to keep in check on the other hand. The movie portrays that vice in a bit more gritty a fashion than we are used to see in a musical. (Oklahoma! this ain’t!) In the “Lovely Ladies” sequence prostitutes advertise their wares for the sailors on the docks, wearing low cut bodices and some suggestive movements. The lyrics of the song are suggestive, full of euphemism, but never explicit. Fantine, after being wrongfully fired from her job at a factory and struggling to make enough money to buy medicine for her daughter, sells her locket, then her hair, and then her teeth (the song represents the passage of days or even weeks in the book), and finally, with no other recourse allows the pimp and prostitutes to talk her into accepting a “customer.” No nudity is shown, and the scene is mercifully cut short but it still leaves the viewer feeling almost as sick and violated as Fantine herself feels; and that is the point. It is most certainly not appropriate for children, or even teenagers, but for adults I think it is great storytelling. It is an invitation to enter imaginatively (and in a very insulated fashion) into someone else’s pain and degradation. Instead of condemning her, as Javert does, or dragging her deeper as the other prostitutes do, or simply ignoring her as most of the world does, the story invites us to look at her as Valjean does, with mercy. He never minimizes the evil of her situation, but refuses to let her be taken to jail, and instead takes her to the hospital and pays for her care and pledges himself to protect her daughter as well.

This is in many ways the central moral decision of the story. It could have been hinted at, or glossed over in any number of ways, but that would have been to rob the story of its power and humanity.

The other major kerfuffle is about the “Master of the House,” scene, which depicts an inn full of dissolutes cavorting through their miserable existence aided by drink, sex and thievery. There is some cleavage and some suggestive movements, and a prostitute is briefly shown with a customer, (no nudity), all the while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter sing and dance and rob their customers hand over fist. Is it grotesque? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. Again, this is a little bit grittier than you might expect from a musical, but still far, far from being a realistic portrayal of that kind of life. Perhaps the conservative viewers would prefer to see the degenerate low-life scum portrayed as being miserable, sick and reaping the just rewards of their sin, but that would be unrealistic. Criminals and degenerates are human too. They joke and sing, if only as a way to deal with the reality of their lives, and this is, above all, a story about human beings.

The story is a Christological one. Valjean, having himself been saved from hatred and misery by the mercy of one man, spends his life trying to live up to that burden by spending his time, energy, fortune, and ultimately his life for love of his neighbor. At the end of the movie, having paid a hundred times over for his petty crime and his neglect which indirectly contributed to Fantine being fired, still prays, “Forgive me my trespasses.” Other characters are shown leading him through his final moments and interceding for him before God. The overall message of the movie is overwhelmingly beautiful and redemptive and not only justifies, but even in some sense beatifies the ugliness that Valjean had to overcome. “To love another person, is to see the face of God.”

So in conclusion, despite the lead (realizing that that is big exception to make in a musical) and Russel Crowe’s rendition of “Stars,” the movie gets four out of five stars. I will definitely watch it again, probably when it comes out on DVD.


  1. I've heard that the company did a better job than the leads. In particular Russell Crowe's singing has been criticized, as well as Anne Hathaway for being too "screechy". I'm a bit surprised by your review of Hugh Jackman, who generally does a great job singing and whom I've seen on Broadway. Seems like the movie is overall a success. I'll look forward to that whenever I get around to seeing the movie.

    1. It isn't that Hugh Jackman is a terrible singer, I just don't think he had the right voice for the part, and trying to force it made it terrible. Some of the women I know who have seen it were definite fans though. ;-)