By Kenny Dickson, Special Contributor…
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
Given that Les Misérables is perhaps the most successful and popular stage musical of all time, and given the star quality of the cast, the movie adaptation was one of the most anticipated films of 2012. Adding to the anticipation was curiosity over how the mix of minimalist staging and sweepingly grand music in the theater production would translate to the screen, with epic staging and more intimate musical performances.
Depending on the expectations of the viewer, the film either slightly disappoints or profoundly moves. If one expects the same caliber or type of musical performance, it will disappoint. If one desires a greater focus on the story and development of the characters, and accepts a different presentation of the music, one will be very satisfied and more than likely profoundly moved.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) employs gritty set design and shot selection to highlight the suffering and poverty of “the people,” the lower class who struggle daily to survive in 19th-century Paris and throughout France. Mr. Hooper’s decision to use vocal performances as sung during the filming rather than the usual post-production voice-overs gives the songs an intimacy that matches the photography and staging. The result is music that is significantly more personal and underplayed in comparison to the staged production, but music that better presents the circumstances of the time and characters. If musical quality is a viewer’s paramount concern, the available concert videos from the 10th and 25th anniversary of the show are a better choice. If one is more interested in—or moved by—the story, this filmed version will more than satisfy fans of the epic Victor Hugo novel.
Most of the actors’ performances are commendable. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean, the protagonist who is jailed 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is solid though not spectacular. However, as Javert, the pharisaic policeman who devotes his life to capturing Valjean after he breaks parole, Russell Crowe presents a formidable-looking enforcer of all laws, but his singing does not convey that same power and authority.
Two other disappointments are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, though this is due more to the presentation of the characters rather than the performances. In the stage version these roles are comedic elements that give a momentary escape from the heaviness of the story and characters. This comedic element is significantly downplayed here, and break in the drama and pacing it once provided is missed during the movie’s two-and-a-half hour running time.
Amanda Seyfried’s Cossette, the daughter of Fantine and adopted daughter of Jean Valjean, is solid, though a bit of a caricature of 1930s film star Jeanette McDonald. Samantha Barks, reviving her role of Eponine from the London stage and the 25th-anniversary concert, is exceptional and has been somewhat overlooked by critics.
The two performances that truly stand out are Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the long-suffering heroine and mother of Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne’s Marius, the son of a wealthy family who is a student leader of the revolution and love interest for Cosette. Marius’ song, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” is a haunting reflection of his friends killed at the barricade and his realization that though he survived, his wounds will never fully heal. Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical’s the two signature solos, with Valjean’s “Bring Him Home.” Ms. Hathaway’s gut-wrenching rendering of a song that reveals a woman whose life dreams have become her living nightmare because of the world’s cruelty, is one of the most moving performances ever presented on film. The viewer truly feels Fantine’s helplessness and broken spirit and feels with her the reality of being one of the “Misérables,” miserable ones.
Les Misérables has long been one of the most overt and theologically ripe stories in literature, on Broadway, and now on film. It is a story that conveys and portrays, through the life of Jean Valjean and others, the need for and impact of grace, forgiveness, regeneration, transformation and resurrection.
When Valjean is at his breaking point—after 19 years in prison for trying to feed his sister’s children and his harsh post-parole treatment at the hands of people whose crimes in exploiting others are much worse than his own—he receives the gift of grace, through a bishop who saves him from going back to prison after he has stolen silver from a church.
This grace (given, not earned) convinces Valjean to live a new life, figuratively and literally. In contrast is the view of Javert, who only knows of law and consequences, crime and punishment, and for whom grace and forgiveness have no place. Whereas Valjean is transformed by the gift of grace, Javert, when given the same grace, forgiveness and chance for a new life, is unable to accept it. It is his refusal to admit his need for grace and repentance that leads to his destruction.
The film ends with an even more explicit presentation of the gospel, the resurrection and the communion of the saints, than the powerful conclusion of the stage version. Emotionally draining, Les Misérables the film shows the world at its worst, harshest and most cruel. But it also shows “the truth that once was spoken, that to love another person is to see the face of God,” and it is in seeing that face, in receiving and offering grace and forgiveness, that life is not only transformed but one receives resurrection to a new life, beyond the barricade of sin, suffering and cruelty.
The Rev. Dickson, senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, has a degree in film history and theory from Southern Methodist University.