To love another person is to see the face of God. — Victor Hugo
If there were ever a story that’s stood the test of time, it’s Les Miserables. It’s the story of how one act of mercy can change a soul forever. It’s the story of love’s power to redeem, reclaim and restore. It’s the story of one man, and it is the story of every man who has found this grace, this mercy, this love. Perhaps that is why it has endured for so long. For the journey of Jean Valjean is our journey as well.
The novel was an instant popular success when it was first published in the 1830s. The 20th century saw it go through multiple adaptations, on the screen and on the stage. I was first exposed to the story through Focus on the Family’s outstanding radio drama. (It is still, in my opinion, the best adaptation out there. Pick up your own copy here and I think you’ll agree.) However, the most popular adaptation is unquestionably the 1985 musical. Originally an unsuccessful French language production, its libretto was translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, and the new production launched a global phenomenon. It went on to become the second-longest-running musical of all time. But 2012 marked the first year that it was brought to the big screen.
Before seeing the film, I had never heard the musical before, aside from a couple of its most famous selections. I knew it was sung-through, like an opera, so I wasn’t sure how well I would like it going in. I came away more impressed than I had expected to be, but still preferring that radio drama. I think the musical format is a mixed blessing, hence its status as a Pro-Con in this review. Since seeing the film, I got the chance to see the musical on stage and enjoyed comparing the two. In my opinion, the screen adaptation is quite good (with a couple important caveats that are to some extent intertwined with the original musical, to be detailed in the “Cons” section). It left me more than a little misty-eyed more than once. But I confess that I almost enjoyed the behind-the-scenes featurettes about its production even more. I think anyone interested in music, singing, or sound mixing will be fascinated by these details, particularly the ground-breaking decision to sing live. I will link to the best of these clips in the course of this review.
1. Hugh Jackman: I knew Jackman had done musical work before, but I was never that impressed with his singing. I was mesmerized by this performance. He gives Valjean a simple, yet compelling voice that really bares this character’s soul. Others may have sung the role better (including the performer I saw live recently), but I don’t think any portrayals can rival this one for passionate, emotional acting. The only reason Jackman won’t win the Oscar he’s been nominated for is that Daniel Day-Lewis also made a film this year. (Talk about an unlucky break!) Here is a featurette about his performance. I was also fascinated by this featurette about how Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean on Broadway, symbolically passed the torch to Jackman by playing the Bishop.
Now I say “pretty much” all the singing was good. There’s poor Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. He’s obviously not comfortable singing, and the format limited his ability to show what he can really do as an actor. But upon re-listening, I think critics have been a bit too harsh on him. A friend of mine who sings professionally also agreed with me on this point. There were moments when he brought, if I can put it this way, a kind of rough fragility to the role of Javert. He was a non-theatrical singer, amidst a host of people who were training to sing theatrically. For a plain man of the law, perhaps that’s not so wrong, even if he lacks the magnetism of a powerful performer like Philip Quast. And referring back to our post on memorable tunes, I was especially struck by how brightly and beautifully the melody of “Stars” shone through. No other Javert that I’ve heard really makes me stop and notice that melody in the same way.
5. The choice to sing live: Instead of pre-recording all the tracks, the actors recorded all their singing as they performed. Others have complained that this was a mis-fire. I think it was a resounding success. Not only did it give the performances a sense of realism, it made me appreciate the fine singing even more. When you realize what this choice entailed, you have a deeper respect for how hard these actors all had to work. My favorite featurette discusses this choice, and it can be watched here. Singing buffs take notice.
7. The scale: There are some gorgeous, sweeping shots in this movie. I still have some issues with the look of the film (see Cons), but it gives the music epic visual scope. To see Javert pacing the very edge of a rooftop high enough to let him look out over the entirety of Paris is breath-taking. Check out this little look at the massive opening sequence.
8. The story: Ultimately, this works simply because “at the end of the day,” it’s still Les Miserables. No matter how you adapt it, the iconic characters are all there, and the iconic themes are all there. The story explores some profound truths, like the fact that somebody always has to pay for the happiness of others, or that each man is faced with the exact same choice to accept grace (Valjean) or reject it (mirrored in Javert’s suicide). All this is worth a lot, not least of all to the Christian viewer.
1. Problematic content: I always research any film before watching it so that if I decide it’s still worthwhile , but a section or two needs skipping, I’m prepared. Presumably you do this as well. A largely redemptive story like this one really shouldn’t come with this sort of caveat, but sadly, there are two sequences that I must advise viewers to skip. Both of them go over-board in bringing two of the less edifying musical numbers to life: “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House.” Neither one was that good in the stage-play either, but the movie takes things a couple steps farther. The former number shows Fantine’s desperation when she first prostitutes herself, to the tune of her new co-workers advertising their “wares.” Not only is the song unedifying, but the process of Fantine’s descent into misery is upsetting/disturbing to watch as she sells her hair, her teeth and finally, herself. Nobody needs to see this, including adults. Second, “Master of the House” is a bawdy introductory number for the Thenardiers whose screen staging is full of coarse, low-brow humor. Fortunately, the film version cuts out some of Thenardiers’ blathering at the much later “Beggars at the Feast” (which provided occasion for a little crude humor unique to the stage version I saw).
3. The revolution: At the very end of the musical, we get a beautiful depiction of Jean Valjean’s death, including a direct hat tip to Hugo’s words at the top of this post. The spirit of Fantine guides him into paradise, and it seems that we will end on a spiritually transcendent note. Except it doesn’t end there. The musical brings back all the characters who have died in the story, mostly in its depiction of the ill-fated June Rebellion, for a reprise of the revolution theme “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Needless to say, this doesn’t feel very spiritual. It feels very, well, political. They’re literally waving the red flag in heaven, and in the film they are shown perched atop a much larger barricade that’s meant to foreshadow the 1848 revolution. This ends everything on the wrong note. At its heart, this story is about Jean Valjean’s spiritual journey, from the bondage of sin to the freedom of grace. The revolution is a sub-plot. Ending with echoes of the revolution takes something away from that core story.
The musical: This is the only pro-con I could come up with, but it’s a biggie. As I said before, I think the musical format is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the epic scale of the story lends itself to opera (which is more or less what this is, because it’s sung-through), and this provides some powerful musical moments. Some of this stuff is simply immortal, e.g., “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I,” “What Have I Done,” “Bring Him Home,” “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” the list goes on. Also, I often found myself pausing to admire the elegance of the melodies and the poetry of the lyrics, even in smaller gems like “Castle On a Cloud” or “In My Life.”
Secondly, there’s the difficulty of filling 3 hours with 99% music. The song-writers got around this by crafting a relatively small number of musical themes and then recycling them with different lyrics in multiple places. Sometimes this makes sense (as when Valjean and Javert sing soliloquies with the same tune, or the tune for “I Dreamed a Dream” emerges when Fantine is remembered), but sometimes it doesn’t (like the fact that Eponine’s theme repeatedly crops up at totally unrelated big plot moments, e.g. Fantine’s death and Valjean’s death).
Bottom line: This is a movie whose source material by turns hits and misses the mark, by which I mean mostly the musical, though the novel itself isn’t entirely flawless. This story is still best appreciated when it is spoken rather than sung. At times, I found myself thinking that I would really like to see what these talented actors could do with the material had they been allowed to drop the singing, particularly Russell Crowe. But as mentioned before, there is profound material here, well serviced by some impressive songwriting. So it seems fitting to say that “at the end of the day,” you’ll be glad that you saw it.