Many years ago, when I was in high school I read Victor Hugo’s famous novel Les Miserables. Then about ten or so years ago I saw the musical in the West End in London. And now comes the movie. First it should be said that unlike Django and various other non-Christmas movies, Les Miserables is a very appropriate movie to release on Christmas. Both the novel and the musical are deeply rooted in Christian themes and ideas as even those who are not all that familiar with Christianity can recognize them, from the opening ‘look down’ theme of the musical to the ‘I dreamed a dream’ high point in the middle to the concluding thrust of ‘to love is to touch the face of God’, this movie is most certainly a film (and musical) brimming to overflowing with Christian motifs. Indeed even the main characters Jean Valjean and Javert represent, respectively grace and law, or mercy and justice.
There are various ways to evaluate Les Miserables, but when it is made into a film as a musical then that certainly changes the way it needs to be evaluated. For one thing, this adaptation is more like opera than the average musical, for the average musical has lots of ordinary dialogue or speaking. Not so this musical. Everything, or nearly everything must be sung. So, let’s talk about that for a moment. One of the great complaints about opera is that this approach is taken to such lengths that when some one is fatally stabbed in a opera, instead of screaming or dying rather quickly they sing, and sing, and sing, which of course gives the whole scene an air of unreality. The question becomes— can you suspend your disbelief long enough to enjoy the music. For make no mistake, the point of a musical is in large measure the music, and it’s appreciation. The persons involved in the writing and scoring of this are Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boblil, and one may be forgiven for their not being household names like say Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe when it comes to musicals. Nevertheless, as music there are some very very fine individual numbers (‘I dreamed a dreamed’ being the largest standout number— here very effectively delivered with the appropriate pathos by Anne Hathaway who knew she could sing like that!). There is a raw edge to the singing not least because the actors were filmed singing while acting. The singing is not dubbed in, and the result of that is that those actors who are not professionally trained singers (for example Russell Crowe) come off less well than others. Hugh Jackman however is a revelation. The real problem is that this is a very very long movie, by musical standards (only really eclipsed by something like the Sound of Music) and it is very difficult to maintain the conceit of this being a drama for so long when all the characters do is sing while fighting, or sing, while loving, or sing while running etc. This disconnect is one reason various of the less music-loving of the reviewers have not given this movie its due. It is a remarkable achievement.
Let’s talk a bit about the characterization given us by the actors. I found most of the performances to be quite good, and true to the novel and the stage musical as well. But casting Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the rapacious Thernardiers who are the comic relief is brilliant. In various scenes they nearly steal the show (especially when we get my father’s favorite tune from the musical— ‘The Master of the House’). I have no complaints at all about the female leads either— Anne Hathaway is excellent and so is Amanda Seyfried as Cosette.
As for the storyline itself, any complaints should finally be lodged with Hugo. He really does drag things out, like the movie, and it is really true that Javert just won’t give his manhunt a rest, even when Valjean spares his life. One problem in the film comes when certain lead characters suddenly become deathly ill, for no apparent reason, and too quickly are seen leaving the earthly scene.
In one sense this film is one stop shopping— Do you like drama? Les Mis has it. Do you like romance? Les Mis has it. Do you like suspense? Les Mis has it. Do you like comedy? Les Mis has it (though not in liberal doses). It runs the full gamut from tragedy to triumph, from degradation to elevation. On top of all that, throw in a goodly dose of French history, the history of the French Revolution. Like I said, it’s one stop shopping with Les Mis.
But is the movie musical coherent enough to stand on its own two feet, if one knows neither the famous novel nor the stage musical? Here there is room for debate certainly (see again the reviews of some on Rotten Tomatoes). As for me, I would give this movie about a B or B+. It has a lot going for it. And it is a brave director who takes on such a daring and daunting task of filming a musical like this, to the tune of 2 hours and 38 minutes. I do believe that a shorter, more edited version of the stage production would have packed more punch on the silver screen, but it would be hard to decide what to cut.
Musicals as films are rare these days, especially those with decidedly Christian themes. I do indeed recommend this film to Christian families…..but perhaps wait until the DVD comes out, and then watch it in segments, perhaps leaving out a bit here and there unsuitable for younger audiences. Me personally, I’d say go see the play. It’s the better adaptation.