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Movie Review: Les Miserables

Where do I even begin to start? I’ve got to admit that it’s intimidating for me to try to gather my thoughts and come up with a coherent review for such a long-awaited movie such as this. I shall try to do my best.  I’m hoping to go back and see it again soon, so if my opinions shift on a second viewing (as they sometimes do) maybe I’ll add a little note at the end or something…

I’ve also been debating whether to direct this review towards the fans, or more towards potential movie-goers who may not be as familiar with the source material. Ultimately, I will write this review for the latter (since fans are going to go see the movie no matter what) but at the end in a designated section, I’ll give more of a fan’s perspective for those who are interested.

To read about my some thoughts on the original musical and the book (and my reaction to the first movie trailer), please click here.

An adaptation faithful to the musical with added elements from Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables soars on the wings of its excellent cast. Although there are a few distracting directional missteps, the emotional, inspirational story still shines through.
Rating: B+
But my friend, you left so early, something surely slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also - would you leave the best behind?

But my friend, you left so early, something surely slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also – would you leave the best behind?

The Story

It’s complicated, but it starts in 1815 with a man named Jean Valjean. Originally arrested for stealing bread to feed his sister’s family, Valjean eventually serves 19 years of hard labor after a few failed escape attempts. The musical opens on the day he is set free; however, life is still almost unbearable for him as he is mistreated everywhere he goes because he has been marked as a “dangerous criminal.” Understandably bitter, Valjean’s entire life turns around when he has an encounter with someone who shows him true compassion and mercy. He vows to become a different man, and over the next two decades makes an impact on the many individuals who cross his path. They include Fantine (a young woman willing to go to desperate lengths to save her little girl, Cosette), Javert (the stalwart police officer pursuing Valjean for breaking his parole), and Marius (a revolutionary fighting the oppression of the masses). The story culminates in the June 1832 Rebellion in Paris.
The Characters (aka the “Good”)

Since there are so many people in this musical, and much has been made of the star-studded cast, let’s start with them. This whole section could almost double as the “Good” part of my review, because I was really impressed with this cast!

Well, I loved Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Acting-wise, he was as great a Valjean as a Les Mis fan could have asked for, in my opinion. He did such a stellar job embodying the character: his inner conflict, compassion, occasional paranoia, and integrity. As Valjean is my favorite character, his soliloquies are always the highlight of the story for me, and I was really impressed with Jackman’s take on them. Another thing I loved about the film interpretation was the way that it really focused on Valjean’s love for Cosette, his adopted daughter, and Jackman conveyed this so well.

Unfortunately, I do have to say it: I was not crazy about Jackman’s singing. I loved how much emotion he put into everything, but his voice almost grated on me at times. There is just something strange about his voice in general that bothered me. However, he still had his moments, one example being the last note of  the song “Who Am I?”

In contrast to a number of other reviewers, (and I may change my mind on a second viewing, who knows) I didn’t have a big problem with Russell Crowe. I thought Crowe’s voice was mostly fine. True, sometimes he does seem to focus more on singing than changing his facial expressions, but at least Javert is a stoic sort anyway. It would have been nice to actually see some more of the conflict in him, but I really don’t think Crowe should be getting so much heavy criticism. “The Confrontation” was good and “Stars” was perfectly serviceable.

At the end of the day there's another day dawning...At the end of the day there’s another day dawning…

I’m not sure there’s ever been anything as soul-crushing as Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Her decline is truly horrifying, as it should be. The use of close-ups are justified here as she sings of “I Dreamed a Dream” all in one take. Even through her appropriately-anguished delivery of that song, Hathaway’s voice is actually quite lovely, showing that those who had reservations about her casting (myself included) had nothing to fear. She makes the most of her brief time on screen, and if she doesn’t walk away with an Oscar, there is no justice in this world.

Eddie Redmayne’s voice sometimes has a bit of what some call the “Kermit” syndrome (like Sarah Brightman) but it’s not distracting enough to be a problem and I really, really liked both his voice and his acting. Marius is not always a character I’m too fond of, so I appreciated really being able to root for him this time around. His solo song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was truly one of the most emotionally impactful moments of the film for me, and trust me, that’s really saying something.

I was a bit worried about Amanda Seyfried, but once again my fears were proved unfounded. Cosette is far from the most interesting character in the musical to me; however, Seyfried’s performance was lovely and sweet. While her voice is not very strong, I thought it was very pretty and matched the character well. Her acting turned out better than I had expected, and her height difference compared to Jackman and Redmayne was adorable.

One more day all on my own...

One more day all on my own…

Samantha Barks’s role as Eponine was surprisingly brief compared the original musical, but like Hathaway, she made the most of it. I already loved her to death in the 25th anniversary concert, so I don’t have too much more to say about her. Her “On My Own” didn’t have quite the same vocal power of her concert performance (for some reason I missed the way she emphasized “preTENDing”) but it was heartrending all the same.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, as well as the rest of the revolutionaries, were perfection. Their mixture of zeal and inexperience was spot-on, and since they are all played by West End veterans, so was their singing.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter were serviceable as the Thenardiers, a married couple who are the musical’s villains, but also its comic relief. I have to admit that the Thenardiers tend to make me cringe more than laugh, but their interactions with Valjean and Cosette worked pretty well.

Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone were so well-cast as young Cosette and the street urchin Gavroche. Child actors are usually hit or miss, but these two were perfect.

The Let-Downs

As much as I approve of the cast as a whole, I do have a few bones to pick with the direction.

Much has already been made of  Tom Hooper’s penchant for super close-ups. Most of the time I didn’t mind them, but I agree that sometimes they went on for too long, and a wide shot or two would have been appreciated. They are clearly meant to give a sense of intimacy, but sometimes the awkwardness of the camera angle distracted from the emotional performances of the actors. The factory portion of “At the End of the Day” in particular bothered me in the way it was shot (and sung).

Those who have seen the stage show are familiar with its more minimalist set-up, but Tom Hooper pulls no punches, going straight into grim and gritty. However, I thought things went too far with two (very brief) sexual scenarios shown. One prostitution scene is essential to the plot, but could have been implied (like the stage show) with the same impact. The other is just raunchy humor depicted as part of “Master of the House.” Again, both shots are very quick and don’t involve nudity, but they are needless, especially since the real focus of the film is on the various loving, selfless relationships.

What’s the Big Deal?

As a whole, the film managed to stay very true to the original musical while incorporating a lot of elements from the book that fans will

A heart full of love, a heart full of song...

A heart full of love, a heart full of song…

enjoy (see below). While getting the smaller elements “just right” is definitely important to the whole feel of the movie as a whole, what’s really important is conveying the right tone and message of the story. Overall, I think the filmmakers succeeded.

I’ve noticed that people unfamiliar with the musical wonder at its mass appeal and dedicated fans. Sure, its story is sweeping, its music is moving, and its characters are compelling. In addition to all this, it’s the message at its core that really grabs people. Les Miserables  is a parable about the good that can emerge from the very worst muck that human beings find themselves stuck in. And although Jean Valjean’s physical strength frequently allows him to better assist others, it’s the strength of his faith in God that really empowers him.

Why are the characters’ stories in Les Miserables so depressing and dark? Besides representing the awful conditions people have had to endure, I think it’s to better show the light. It truly helps us remember that no one is so far gone that he or she can’t be saved by God. To quote Corrie ten Boom, a Christian who survived time in a concentration camp after hiding Jews during the Holocaust, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” Like Valjean, when we throw off our old selves and believe in the grace that rescues us from our sins, our lives can be changed in wondrous ways. The journey from that point on may not be easy, but we are assured of our destination and the reward that awaits us there.

And if that’s not a reassuring and uplifting message, then I don’t know what is.

Spoilers ahoy! For those who are already familiar with the book/musical/have seen the movie already:

So many details from the book!!! It was like finding Easter Eggs. I really didn’t mind any of the changes from the musical – I thought they all felt “right” and only served to help the plot and characters make more sense. Some of the ones I remembered: Fantine’s teeth, the snow in her dress, the absence of the brand on Valjean’s chest (the reveal of the number at the trial was a cool moment in the musical, but it doesn’t make sense when you realize that all the police had to do was check Valjean’s (or the “false” Valjean’s) chest to see if he was 24601), Valjean and Cosette seeking shelter in the convent, Gavroche living in the giant elephant, Marius having a grandfather and actually getting a backstory, he and Eponine being next-door neighbors, the manner of Eponine’s death, and the revolutionaries seeking shelter in the building.

I also really appreciated that Grantaire and Enjolras got to die together like in the book, but thought the moment went by way too fast. I would have preferred some dialogue there, and I don’t think a first-time viewer would get the full significance at all. However, Enjolras falling out of the window (though hard to watch, to be sure) was really the perfect compromise between the book and the iconic scene in the musical.

Javert pinning his badge on Gavroche’s body was a nice touch, but the moment that stood out for me the most was when he sees Valjean enter the tavern. Hanging limply from a noose, the expression in his teary blue eyes was startling and lingering. But I think Javert’s death would have worked better had he just disappeared into the water rather than hit the concrete with a loud crack!

Eponine! I appreciated that she kept Cosette’s letter hidden for a while and was injured saving Marius’s life as in the book rather than just climbing back over the barricade to be with him. The shot of her leaning on Marius’s doorframe was another great nod to the Brick.

Where I go, you will be.

Where I go, you will be.

Like I said before, I loved the emphasis the movie put on Cosette and Valjean’s daughter/father relationship. First the little “mademoiselle” greeting and hat tip made me “awwww!” because it’s the first time anyone since Fantine has treated her with respect, and well, basically like a human being. She’s so scared of him in the woods at first, but by the time they get back to the village, she’s laughing and holding onto his arm while he lifts her off the ground – so cute! It’s clear “Suddenly” is a ploy for the “Best Original Song” Oscar, but it’s still very sweet, especially that Valjean has a moment to slow down and accept that he’s just become a father, and it’s already changing him. But of course, Cosette grows up and falls for Marius, and Valjean realizes that it’s time to let her go. Jackman stumbling over the phrase “you love me as well” in Marius’s letter killed me, as did his palpable relief when Cosette arrives to see him right before he dies. Seyfried’s acting made this scene even more heartbreaking than usual (as did Jackman gently “booping” her on the nose. Weep with me).

Not actually sure how I feel about the “meta barricade” at the very end. It reminded me a lot of the very last scene in Titanic. I was confused about it at first, but then I read in the original screenplay that it was really supposed to depict the successful 1848 revolution. I like this because while the end of the stage show certainly leaves us with the hope that the people will one day be able create kinder times for themselves, the final image of a giant barricade defended by most of Paris really drives this home. Valjean and the revolutionaries are sort of watching in spirit, their memory kept alive. However, if the filmmakers were  really going for this approach, why not actually put the year and its significance as a title card on the screen? Why not include Marius and Cosette as part of the crowd, as was originally intended? (Although the Thenardiers were supposed to be there too, I’d rather not include them!) When I saw the film for the first time, I didn’t realize that the new barricade was supposed to be a part of the 1848 revolution – I just thought it was a dream sequence. Perhaps other may filmgoers may mistake it as some sort of afterlife, a “Great Barricade in the Sky,” or something.  The image of Valjean being welcomed into Heaven by the Bishop was great, but then it’s a bit strange for him suddenly to appear on a giant barricade without explanation. There is a lot to be said for the simple image of the two candlesticks left burning onstage at the end of the original musical. Besides referencing back to the Bishop’s kind action at the start of the story, I like to think they also represent the two young people who are the hope for the next generation, Cosette and Marius.

Man, I’m sure I’m forgetting other things I meant to mention, but this is already like the longest post ever so I’ll quit. Suffice to say, this movie was really difficult and gut-wrenching to watch, and it doesn’t always the musical/vocal power of the stage version, but despite its flaws it is just about as good a film adaptation of Les Miserables (book and musical) that could have been done.

For those who have seen it, what are your thoughts?

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4 comments on “Movie Review: Les Miserables

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: Les Miserables | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Pingback: Top 7 of ’13: Best Books I’ve Read This Year | Back to the Bookshelf!

  3. Pingback: Kate’s Top 12 Favorite Fictional Characters | Back to the Bookshelf!

  4. seroword
    August 15, 2015

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    -Seroword

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This entry was posted on January 2, 2013 by in Classic, Historical, Les Miserables, Movies, Theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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