Given that “Les Miserables” is perhaps the most successful and popular stage musical of all time, and given the star quality of the cast, “LesMiserables” was one of the most anticipated films of 2012. Also adding to the anticipation was the curiosity behind the challenge of inverting the production characteristics from the minimalist staging yet sweepingly grand music of the theater production to a film 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 film to present the same caliber or type of music and musical performances, the film will disappoint. If one desires a greater focus on the story and development of the characters, and accepts a differing presentation of the music, one will be very satisfied and more than likely profoundly moved.
Director Tom Hooper’s gritty set design and shot selection highlight the suffering and poverty of “the people ,” the lower class who struggle daily to survive in 19th century Paris and throughout France. Hooper’s decision to use the 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 the musical quality is of paramount concern the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts 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 Victor Hugo epic novel.
Taking the design and techniques used by Tom Hooper in mind, the performances are solid to outstanding. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean, the protagonist prisoner who is jailed 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is solid though not spectacular. Unfortunately, Russell Crow’s Javert, the pharisaic policeman who devotes his life to capturing Jean Valjean after he breaks parole presents a formidable looking enforcer of all laws, but his singing does not convey that same power and authority.
Two other disappointments were the Thenardiers, the Master and Madame of the house, though this was due more to the presentation of the characters rather than the performances of Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter. In the stage version these roles are the comedic elements that give a break to the drama and a momentary escape from the heaviness of the story and characters. This comedic element was downplayed significantly in the film and the pacing and break in the drama it provided was missed later in the over two and a half hour film.
Amanda Seyfried’s Cossette, the daughter of Fantine and adopted daughter of Jean Valjean was solid though a bit of a caricature of 1930’s film star Jeanette McDonald. Samantha Barks, revising her role of Eponine from the London stage and the 25th Anniversary concert, was exceptional and has been somewhat overlooked.
The two performances that stood out were 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’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a haunting reflection of his friends killed at the barricade and his realization that his survivor wounds that 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.” Hathaway’s gut wrenching performance of a the song that sings of a woman whose life dreams have become her living nightmare because of the world’s cruelty is one of the most powerfully moving performances ever presented on film. Through Hathaway’s breathtaking acting and flawless singing, and Hooper’s tight shot selection and slum setting, the viewer truly feels Fantine’s helplessness and broken spirit and feels with her the reality of being one of the “Miserables,” miserable ones.
“Les Miserables” 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. Just 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 those on the outside whose crimes in exploiting others are much worse, though not illegal, than his, he receives the gift of grace by a Bishop who saves Valjean from going back to prison after he stole silver from a church.
This grace, given not earned, convinces Jean 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 when Jean is extended grace and transforms, Javert, when given the same grace, forgiveness and chance for a new life, is unable to accept such. It is his refusal to admit his need for grace and repentance that leads to his destruction.
The film ends with an even more powerfully and explicit presentation of the Gospel, the resurrection and the communion of the saints, than the powerful conclusion of the stage version. Emotionally draining, “Les Miserables” 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.