Thursday, December 27, 2012

Film Review: "Les Miserables"

Here's what you need to realize: if you love this story, then the film version of Les Miserables will prove to be the closest adaptation of the novel you will ever see.  If you are a fan of the sweeping broadway musical, hang your expectations about vocal power and sweeping melodies on a rack at home.  This is not the place for them.    In order for the characters to supremely and wonderfully expose the emotions they are feeling, and the emotions laying not-so-dormant in the lyrics by the inimitable  Alain Boubil, they do so by exchanging vocal prowess for gritty realism.  The music is the medium through which they tell the story. It is not, as is the case in musical theatre, the centre of a lavish production.

The language of cinema, the scope of cinema is a dream for all of us who have been dying for a close adaptation of Hugo's outstanding work to hit the screen. I first read the Norman Denny translation at 12 years old and have read it somewhat 18 to 20 times since. Les Miserables is my favourite novel, the reason I am a bookworm and the reason I pursued literature at university and subsequently publishing. I think I would be hard pressed to find someone as passionate about this novel as I.  The novel is my first love.  Due to the love of the novel, I sought out every available film adaptation of the book (I have seen a few from all decades: some in French, some silent, some "classics" )and have visited the musical on stage at least 8 times: having seen Colm Wilkinson's Valjean thrice, and having seen the Broadway and West End productions.  The story ....the heart of the tale.... the Gospel mirrored in the transformation Valjean undergoes through one redemptive act of grace and, subsequently the grace that shatters the character who acts as his parallel: garnered by Law and having not yet experienced the righteousness not of the sword but of the cross, in my estimation, the most powerful ever told in literary form. 

It is quite believable that the tales claiming prisoners and sinners have come to Christ within its pages and its narrative be so.  It is that powerful.  It is the reason, even though you may not know it, that you are so deeply moved by the spectrum of this story. You may not realize it, but I believe the entire opus is divinely inspired. I believe, as I did the other day, in an almost ghastly quiet theatre without the usual cell phone screeches or popcorn chomping, that people are surreptitiously moved in a way they may not fully understand. Such is the power of this story.  Such is the power of the emblem of redemption when one man is convinced to turn his life around for God: and the ripples of grace he is able to impart upon his conversion. 

The film is keenly aware of its reverent impact and thus explores it in a broad and compelling way that closely mirrors the novel.  There are several “insider” moments for those who love the book as I do. Here is a list that my friend Gina and I were able to compile (Gina, I am totally bringing you into this): the cross in its emblem follows Valjean everywhere.  If he is in a scene, a crucifix: whether crudely atop a hill or on his desk or in his hand at his factory as he shows the work of those grisettes stringing rosaries to Javert is ever close by.  The stark and lovely contrast in the Rue Plumet house which exposes Valjean’s plain and cold bedchamber against Cosette’s lovely and floral canopy is a sheer match for the several, several chapters which flourish their sweet relationship.  Marius’ grandfather, M. Gillenormand is shown and Marius’ status as the son of a Baronet and a wealthy successor in his own right is shown. Further, Marius’ flat within the same sector as the Thenardiers’ ---as a neighbor to Eponine--- is also established.
Readers of the novel are familiar with the gruesome upturn in Fantine’s life, including the selling of her two front teeth after the sells her hair and enters prostitution. Here, it is her two back teeth.

I love the scenes when Valjean (then referred to as the Man in the Yellow Coat) visits Montfermeil to fulfill his promise and claim Cosette. Readers are aware that it is Christmas Eve and the movie paints it as so: the “Master of the House” number includes a few festive parlays as well as the rather crude (but authentic ) inclusion of a St. Nicholas character.  Moreover, while sisters Eponine and Azelma are spoiled with toys and presents, Cosette is deprived of girlish flounces until Valjean buys her a doll from a beautifully adorned window. Readers, THAT is here too (it is so exciting)

For further authenticity, look no further than the rebel meetings at the Café Musain and the July uprising. The positioning of the students: from Grantaire to Courfeyrac, the over-taking of the Lamarque funeral, the furniture being tossed from windows into the streets to form the barricades: it is all here. In glorious truth.  I was so moved seeing how my imagination wrought those long-ago events to real life. More still, in a scope the stage could never hope to provide, we are given the real terror of the students as they are cornered and overtaken by the Guard….right until the untimely death of Enjolras and Grantaire, staying strong together as their world ---ideally and literally---falls beneath them.

Well done casting department for making these students so young and vulnerable and pained and scared.  I have seen numerous stage adaptations (including the rather awkward casting of the 10th Anniversary Concert ) where 30 and 40 year olds are trying to convey the youth and innocence of the ABC Society. These boys are just that ---boys! Hugo would be proud.

The stage production, as mentioned several times, cannot hope to convey the beauty and spanse of Hugo’s 19th Century world.  Readers know that he spends several pages in deep digression on the squelching terror of the Paris Sewers. Here, in the muck and mire, the potency of Valjean’s sacrifice: first for adorning his old service uniform and acting as a volunteer at the barricades and then saving Marius by dragging him through the muck of the sewers is seen here in full force.  Though they eliminate the “Dog Eats Dog” number sung by the sneaky Thenardier, his presence is welcome and accurate.

I could seriously go on and on and on about the little ways in which the film touches on aspects of the novel we have not seen in previous cinematic adaptations or on stage; but I want to get to the meat of the film itself.  It blew me away.

Indeed, I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I was so moved by a film.  I was sobbing to the point of convulsion at the end of our Christmas Day screening ( I went with my family after turkey dinner) and had to compose myself over credits to finally leave the theatre.  The story, its inspiration, its realization of God’s grace to the unfortunate, to the everyman, to the deserving and the non-deserving is enough to pummel you over.  Hugh Jackman was largely responsible for my emotional response.  He was breathtaking and he blew me away.  He has a power instinctive in his physicality and his haggard appearance and world-weary eyes that strip away any familiarity you have with him as an actor.  Indeed, my sister didn’t recognize him in the film at all.  From the glorious opening scenes as he works the galleys of a ship through his eventual conversion at the benediction of a kindly bishop (shout out to COLM WILKINSON), Jackman is a man lost---little more than a dog of the street--- cajoled and beaten and downtrodden.   

In his eventual reformation and his breaking of his parole, he becomes a distinguished yet tortured figure: prominent in his position as M. Madeleine and the Mayor of Montreuil- Sur –Mer yet still haunted by his past and still so convinced he is an underserving specimen in need of continual reformation.  His disbelief at his blind eye toward Fantine is especially heart-breaking.

Speaking of Fantine: I was skeptical of Anne Hathaway mainly because of her physicality: Fantine is clearly a blue-eyed and blonde haired beauty and Hathaway is so dark featured; but she wrings out all of the pathos of the character from the moment she completely loses her dignity to her tortured performance of I Dreamed a Dream.  Here, the octave change on the word ‘shame’ is more than just a set-up for vocal prowess: it becomes a heart-shrieking wail as she realizes that her life is over. That all she hoped for and wished for and that all her poet-lover Tholomyes inspired in her is completely lost. 

I was shaken.

I could speak of Valjean forever ( Jackman carries the movie and then some); but I should touch on other characters.
Note: I could speak on this subject… the subject of Les Miserables forever---
Javert is my favourite character in the musical: largely because I feel he is given the best musical numbers. Russell Crowe is by far the weakest musical link and yet he is has the physical presence and physiognomy of the tortured inspector.  The Confrontation scene is powerful: more still because Valjean and Javert (often parallels or duals when explored in literary resonance) are physically well-matched.  The scales will always tip in Valjean’s favour; but not without a fight.

The Thenardiers are just as bawdy and under-handed as is to be expected. The greatest sin the musical commits is de-villainizing them into comic characters; but there, they are at least true to their stage incarnations.

Marius Pontmercy is played by Eddie Remayne.  Immediately, when I first saw the trailer and it showed a clip of Marius standing tall aside Enjolras at the barricade, I breathed a mea culpa for my universal skepticism in exchange for my wonderment at Eddie Remayne. He looked like the Marius of my mind.   He did not let me down. His Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is a brilliant, brilliant attempt at reconciling a happy life with the lost lives of his friends.His shaking off the bonds of his privileged background, his immediate infatuation with Cosette and his impulsive need to support the members of the ABC Society at the barricades are all marvelous. Dude can act.

Eponine was also lovely.  She has a far grittier role in the novel and I sometimes cringe when she is romanticized beyond the crass and discordant street figure she is. Nonetheless, she was extremely touching: never more still than when she saves Marius’ life at the barricade.

Gavroche is a sweet thing: from ducking behind that gargantuan Elephant to hopping in and around the carriages trundling through St. Michel.

Cosette ---as played by Amanda Seyfried--- is given a weak and airy soprano; but again, is pitch perfect in the looks department.  Marius and Cosette have such a spark, a chemistry, a lasting love.  I was especially moved by her presence at Valjean’s deathbed. There’s one lovely little gesture where he taps her nose with fatherly love: This, thought I, this in a simple movement encapsulates the relationship so strongly explored in the book.

When Valjean first tips his hat at the young Cosette, frigid and afraid in the wood, your heart melts.  Boubil and Schonberg scored a new song for Jackman to sing as he muses on his new charge while they rumble away from the Thenardiers in a carriage, and while not musically strong, his sense of wonderment at the duty before him is well-felt.

I could seriously go on about this forever.  I was completely unfounded in my skepticism for the following reason: I sacrificed momentarily my love for the power of the story in exchange for being preliminarily off-put by the soundtrack.  You will not listen to this soundtrack on repeat for long car rides or at work as you will, well, any cast recording with Colm Wilkinson.  The theatre is a different medium that expects its vocal power to act in a different way.  Here, we have the magic of film: the close-ups, the sets. The music is not the center of the story (as is the case with the stage musical), it is the filter in which they tell the story.  The story is at the centre. The characters are at the center in a more imminent way than could ever be experienced at a seated distance in the live theatre. You can see their tears and experience their grief in close-ups. The camera, here, is your ally. It exposes the Hugo-world in a sweeping and majestic way, it upturns the lives of the poor with their open scabs and blistering closeness, it paints the revelatory sojourn of a convict who inches toward redemption.  I bless the camera for bringing to my mind the scenes and landscapes I could only but picture in my mind’s eye from the novel;Those which previous film adaptations have never rightly wrought.

Contemporary society can speak onward and upward about the lack of Faith in film and yet, and yet this exists.  The clearest and most powerful emblem of Christ’s love you are likely to see in the popular sphere.  If you are sitting through Les Miserables you cannot separate its religious influence from your passion for the story; because they are one and the same.  You will be moved in ways that steal through your spirit and surge something in you that perhaps you are not able to name. That sense of strong conviction is one often perused in Christian circles but largely evaded in a secular society so used to the more negative influx of current evangelism.  Let me then state that as a person of Faith, Les Miserables  makes me proud.  The story: its slight and beautiful treatise on God’s love mirrors the Christianity I am so familiar with and imbibed with and try so hard to emulate. Jean Valjean is one of our greatest apostles.  Hugo penned a work so utterly wretched and yet so saturated with Christ’s hope that the two cannot help but intersect and climax with a telling moment of righteousness and life beyond the weary world.  This film is a wonderment. In my opinion, as a self-proclaimed Les Miserables expert, it is the closest thing we have to Hugo’s tale. Go, go and be moved. 


Anne Mateer said...

Loved your thoughts and I so agree that I think my favorite thing about this movie is that they incorporated things from the book that aren't in the stage production. And for the first time ever I liked Marius! That made me happy. (Usually I find Enjolras the more intriguing of the two.) And I loved that the faith themes were accentuated, not downplayed. Hugh Jackman was amazing. I will definitely be seeing this again--and owning it!

Bob Parks said...

I too appreciated your review of Les Mis. As a fan of the musical for years, I was eagerly anticipating the film version. It was great seeing it all on the big screen, with the advantage of seeing the faces & emotions of the characters up close. I do wish they had cast a stronger Javert, and I was not all that impressed by the choices made for the Thenardiers. But Hugh Jackman was exceptional as was Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne (I was surprised to learn that this was his first professional singing role!) While the stark, gritty realism of the prison & street scenes made for a greatly expanded experience from the stage musical, I felt the film could have done without some of the depictions of sexual encounters (the scene with Fauntine and the one with St. Nicholas - quite gratituous, making for some uncomfortable moments for those who don't choose to frequent movies with graphic sexual content.) But those things aside, it was an engaging and inspiring movie even for those of us who know the story & music by heart. And I agree that the Christian message came through quite clearly. So glad for that.

Rachel said...

Bob: I was perhaps anticipating the more bawdy scenes with the Thenardiers due to my familiarity with the musical so, as such, they were not a surprise to me.

I personally thought the first encounter Fantine has as a prostitute to be well-founded. They didn't show anything (it was more suggestive than not) and I found it established the stark contrast between the life she thought she would have and the lengths to which her sacrifice for her daughter Cosette would go.

On the upside, every stage production I have seen has starred a Grantaire who makes very suggestive use of a wine bottle at the Cafe Musain. We were spared this "Don Juan" portion in the movie :D

Victoria Schorr said...

Great review!

As one who had never read the book and has only known the musicals, I was not prepared for the grit. It was wonderful, however, and very needed. It made me appreciate the characters far more than the glorified stage versions ever had.

Equally, I had been VERY skeptical of Hathaway as Fantine but she brought me to tears. Though Jackman did a good job, he wasn't able to bring that out of me for some reason. Sacha Baren Cohen was unexpected and I think he did a fabulous job of both being a horrible person and comic relief. I'm afraid I wasn't sold on Marius though as - though it may not be in the novel, I don't know - I liked the calousness of his stage character as it added another layer of awful for me. I always had the impression that he was young and foolish and probably wouldn't stay in love with Cosette long after the marriage, thereby showing the dark side to this high-society living as well. This Marius actually seemed quite genuine and I felt he lost some of the poignancy from that. Which is he in the book?

Lastly, I was very sad about them cutting one of my favorite songs into just two lines: the one given by Gavroche and his fellow street urchins.

Overall, a great rendition of the book, as you say, and not centered on the musical. Thanks again for a great review!

Anonymous said...

Lovely review. I adore the book, and can't wait to see the movie (it's releasing in England this Friday). And it's great to know that they've been truer to Eponine in the movie - both in terms of character, and her saving Marius' life, which is utterly omitted in the musical.

I wonder though, if they've had the courage to make Marius the more negative character that he is in the book (throwing Valjean out of his house), as opposed to the musical.

Unknown said...

Thank you, a great review and you gave words to some of my thoughts. I'm going to quote some of this on FB page, but I'll link to your page as well.