Les Mis—- the Movie. On Further Review

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.

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  • Max

    The fact that you can see the faces in great detail gives the movie an advantage over the stage play. The acting was most moving and the singing really drew on the emotions. Eddie Redmayne’s song to fallen comrades was superb, every nuance of facial expression an opera in itself. Anne Hathaway was marvellously pathetic. The digital imaging was awesome, it looked so grittily real, I would like to see a movie about Trafalgar now! The operatic approach on narrative works really well. The French do it so wonderfully, see Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in three acts, ninety minutes, wonderful!

  • Ally

    one thing to take into consideration is that it already WAS cut down in length – I never went back through and figured out exactly what got cut specifically – but considering it’s not as long as the original 3 hours and 15 minutes of the musical (prior to it getting shortened to something like 2 hours and 50 minutes about a decade ago now… I can’t remember the new running time – I remember the old because I was shocked to learn Les Miz had been paying for 15 minutes of overtime to their orchestra every night for their entire run at that point! which was over 15 years at that point!) and they did add in some new stuff (mostly from the novel, yay!), so clearly a lot more than even my obsessive self realized. (I’ve got to listen to the Complete Symphonic recording again and figure it out… maybe once the DVD is out… IN the movie there were some blatant cuts of only a couple of measures all over the place, I guess it all adds up)

    Anyway – my point is I’m not certain how much further you can cut it without having to announce plot via text like they did in the Tenth Anniversary Concert performance/dvd…

    (Then again, I dislike most abridged versions of the novel as well – I keep hoping someone will make a BBC-type miniseries of Les Miserables as 5 hours is the minimum that can actually cover all of the plot… I dislike abridged versions of the novel because most of them take out plot along with getting rid of those pesky chapters on convents and French slang and all…)

    Anyway – as a huge Les Miserables fan, I know my thoughts on the movie have nothing to do with the average movie-goer’s experience though. I was actually disturbed by most of the closeups – I found Anne Hathaway’s unplucked eyebrow to be a distraction during “I Dreamed a Dream” for example… (Maybe if she’d projected more I would have had enough of a distraction from it by her singing – but mostly that’s a matter of them switching the placement of the song – in the stage show she sings it BEFORE she ends up joining the “Lovely Ladies” – she did well enough for what I assume was the direction she was given – I just don’t approve of the interpretation of the song myself)

    But OH HOW I LOVED the fact that they brought the Bishop in at the end – I’ve always thought that was one thing that was better in the novel than in the musical… and especially with Colm doing such a fantastic job as the Bishop! (even if the role is a bit low for him…amusingly enough since Valjean was a bit high for Hugh… I felt sorry for Hugh during the entirety of Bring Him Home – it sounded painful! I mean he did a decent job (no where near as good as Colm, or John Owen-Jones, or Alfie Boe, or any of the Valjeans I’ve seen on the National tour…) but it just sounded so painfully strained…)

  • Ally

    oops – didn’t realize I’d gotten so far off topic – or so rambling – feel free to delete the above, lol! I get kind of passionate about Les Miserables without much effort :)

  • Stephen

    I thought the acting was good, but the singing….just OK. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks were the exceptions.

    Watch the 10th anniversary concert DVD. All the emotion is there and you won’t find better singing. You’ll realize how average some of the voices in the movie were.

  • http://TruthWhys.com Dan Salter

    I gave the movie a B+ as well but that was mostly for the lackluster performance of Crowe. For so important a character, Crowe’s failing to communicate the struggle in Javert’s soul was hugely harmful to the whole story–to the major theme (among dozens of sub-themes) of the play. Having seen the stage version half a dozen times, I was fearful of reports that Hathaway’s wispy rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” would sully my attitude further, but I was fairly pleased with her performance even though she did not sing it full voiced. She carried the pathos well. All in all, I thought it was very good and would not have cut it down at all. Its story is classic. To cut it to a more manageable size for today’s one thought, soundbite audiences may have garnered greater reviewer praise, but there’s no doubt the “classic” essence of the movie would have been harmed. Hugo’s story was masterful. The musical’s adaptation, converting a hugely long novel into a two-hour performance was masterful. I continue to marvel at how well the musical captures the essence of the book. To have cut the movie further would surely have resulted in a material loss. I do think it is difficult to let the movie stand alone on one viewing. The stage production is hard enough to do that. Each time I’ve seen it, my understanding and appreciation have grown. But as with all classics, that’s as it should be. This is not (or should not) be meant as one-time view entertainment. Judge it on a different scale. This is literature, grace, depth, ethos, pathos, philosophy, life, value in exceptional form. Great production, whether literary or performing, should not be ground down for a mincemeat-slavering public. That would be like preachers dumbing down their messages so the least in the congregation can readily understand while no one is drawn to move higher.

  • http://blestpickle.blogspot.com/ Lynne

    Did you know that Hugh Jackman made his name in musical theatre in Australia before moving to Hollywood?