All is well when we are ‘Misérables’

“Aujourd’hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d’être dit, on le chante.”
(“Nowadays what isn’t worth saying is sung.”)
― Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Le Barbier de Séville


*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Les Misérables at the Century 20 in Daly City on Wednesday, 26 December 2012.

Is there any bigger artistic minefield than adaptation? The very act of creating art comes with its own headaches: lack of resources; inconvenient timing; compromised vision; and the overwhelming fear that the audience just won’t respond to your work the way you’d intended (to name but a few. These problems are increased exponentially when one is adapting a work. For adaptation comes with its own inherent pitfall: inevitable (and inescapable) comparison to the original. And if there’s anything fans of the original will be prepared to express, it’s how an adaptation is, by its very nature, inferiour because it changes things. (Try going on Amazon and reading the reviews for The Secret of NIMH on DVD – I dare you! Count how many people are pissed because they changed the lead’s name from “Mrs. Frisbee”, as it was in the novel, to “Mrs. Brisby”.)

I think I’ve touched upon this before in my review of The Amazing Spider-Man, but it’s just as true of Victor Hugo’s phonebook-sized novel Les Misérables. When the musical stage version premiered in 1985, it was eviscerated by critics; most of whom took umbrage with the very idea that such a heavily dramatic story be turned to {shudder} a musical – regarded as the lightest of theatrical fare. Much of that has to do with the fact that musicals tend to be unapologetically melodramatic.

Whilst this sort of prejudice would have prematurely sunk a lesser show, Les Mis – as it has been affectionately called by its devout fans (myself included) – succeeded by doing that which all great adaptations do: it streamlined the exposition, keep the most important emotional high points, and – this is most important – was actually entertaining. That’s all it takes to make a great adaptation, folks. Bookwriter/lyricist Claude-Michel Schönberg and composer Alain Boublil stuck to that simple philosophy and created a masterpiece. People love the Lord of the Rings films because they have rousing action, characters we care about, and enough of the books to make one feel they haven’t missed the best parts – does anyone really care that they cut out Tom Bombadil?

In the hierarchy of mainstream artistic recognition, I find it amazing that film seems the final word in a story’s claim to legitimacy. Not the novel, comic, theatre, or television version. No, only when it’s on film does the public at large deem it worthy of any true value. It’s been a long, winding road to get Les Mis to the big screen. Most of its musical “peers” – Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, to name but a few – have made it to cinemas (albeit with their own hurdles), but Les Mis seemed to take on an almost legendary status as its deceptively-simple premise (“song ‘n dance with Frenchmen and muskets”) seemed impossible to translate in a way that would satisfy everyone. To say nothing of finding the right cast blessed with the perfect combination of mainstream appeal/recognition, the magical ability to personify the characters as they exist in each audience member’s mind, and – much lower on the list – actual singing ability.

Does it succeed? Let’s take a look…

In early 18th century France a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been released from prison after 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Upon being released, and encountering a kind priest who shows him a mercy Valjean thought did not exist, he breaks his parole with the intent of making himself a better man. Under a new identity, he becomes a successful factory owner and mayor. But his past still haunts him as he is being hunted by his old jailer, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

When one of Valjean’s factory workers, the heartbroken Fantine (Anne Hathaway), finds herself on the wrong side of the law to support her daughter, Valjean can’t help but notice the parallels between their lives and extends to her the kindness that helped him become a better man.

With the determined Javert in pursuit and the life of Fantine’s daughter at stake, the characters set off on a course that will change their lives and put them in the middle of a revolution.

What I’ve always loved about the story, both the novel and its adaptations, is how it manages to be a parable of religious morality without shoving it down your throat. In Javert you have the unshakable self-righteous guardian of morality who feels that the word of God is sacrosanct. He isn’t an evil man, but he has an incredibly myopic view of morality that he feels should not be wavered from. In Valjean you have a man who has broken many laws, but has always done so with the best of intentions; starting with the fact that he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her starving child. He is a moral man, if not always a law-abiding one.

Who’s to say which of these men is more godly, the one who follows scripture to the letter (even at its most contradictory) or the one who lives his life by the open-hearted philosophy said scripture preaches? It’s a question that has confounded students of God for as long as people have been able to pray. In regards to Judeo-Christian studies, it’s practically an Old vs. New Testament: the “Obey or perish!” teachings of Moses vs. the “Do right by what’s in your heart” philosophy of Christ. I tend to favour the latter whilst appreciating the former. Yes, the old rules were put in place for a reason. But as times and circumstances change, so must the conditions by which we judge “morality”. One can still honour the traditions of the old way, but taking them literally and refusing to change will eventually make those very rules obsolete. If my lifelong spiritual journey has taught me anything, it is that people tend to be far more open to another point of view when presented with an open hand, rather than thrown from a closed fist.

I must confess that I haven’t seen director Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he was announced as director. His declaration to have all of the singing done live intrigued me, as I’ve been wanting to see and hear a film do that for years (as an unabashed cinéaste and one-time student of sound design, I always found it annoying for characters to go from “dirty” live sound to “clean” studio singing – the difference is painfully noticeable). I’ll say that he directs with a steady hand that emphasises the presence of one human against a grand backdrop of history. Many have taken issue with his extended use of close-ups in this film; I am not one of those people. Some of the complaints have been from folks who wished to appreciate the production design, and that makes sense – I too appreciate the skill that goes into the creation of a period piece. Still, I’m more interested in the mental goings-on of the characters moreso than the patterns on the wallpaper.

His gambit to sing live works, for the most part. I’m guessing he was compensating for all of the live background sound that he was bound to pick up by live recording, but the way the music is slightly muted in some scenes was a bit annoying. Boublil made his composition simple enough that it can be recognisably recreated on a child’s piano, but strong enough that it demands a grand orchestra if you can get one. And when it has to cut between locations – such as in “One Day More” – it gets even more awkward as it just puts greater emphasis on the fact that these people are in different places, as opposed to sharing a stage. The music is still good, I just wish he’d found a better way to balance it with human voices speaking outdoors


Samantha Barks as Éponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius.

Samantha Barks as Éponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius.


And then we come at last to the performances. Let’s get the obvious two out of the way first.

Yes, everything you’ve heard of Anne Hathaway’s performance is true. Let me say that when she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” that there must have been some unseen onions in the auditoriums, because I had the damnedest time keeping my eyes dry. She took a song used in countless musical auditions and karaoke bashes and revealed it to be the heartbreaking lamentation it was meant to be. I don’t follow internet gossip very closely, so I’m not all that sure why there seems to be a wave of hatred directed toward her (other than simple envy). All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed most of her performances over the past decade and she exceeded my best expectations for this film.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Russell Crowe. That’s not entirely fair. I can honestly say that acting-wise, his performance as Javert wasn’t at all bad and I will defend it. There are flickers in his eyes, movements in his face that appropriately reveal the complexity of what this man is thinking. Had this been another traditionally dramatised version of Hugo’s novel, I don’t think there would have been such a backlash against Crowe… but this is a musical. I’ve only heard snippets of Crowe’s vocals as part of the rock band 30-Foot Odd Grunts, but they are not suited for the grand belting that’s required for a musical such as this. It all starts with a God-bless-him-he’s-trying off-key appearance in “Look Down” that doesn’t improve as the film goes on. When he got to “Stars”, Javert’s Act I solo, I remember cringing and squirming in my seat as he butchered the final high note. Of all the wonderfully actors with powerful singing voices, the idea of giving this role to a tone-deaf-yet-Oscar-winning one confounds me.

The rest of the cast are pretty effective at their roles. Hugh Jackman should have been doing musicals on screen a long time ago. He wasn’t my dream choice to play Valjean, but he finds the emotion and he has the voice. Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, and Amanda Seyfried bring vocal prowess and heart-breaking emotional depth to their roles as Marius, Éponine, and Cosette respectively. My favourite might have been Aaron Tveit as Enjorlas, leader of the student rebellion. Even Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t too bad as M. Thenardier, but that just illuminates how woefully miscast was Helena Bonham Carter as Mlle. Thenardier (no, she hasn’t gotten any better since Sweeney). For the most part, a solid cast.

Les Mis has been around so long and become so popular that there’s no way it was going to meet everyone’s expectations. And, to be honest, Hooper and his team don’t entirely succeed: a friend of a friend wisely pointed out that stage productions have intermissions, giving the audience time to recouperate and go to the restroom; not often so of films. And at 2hrs. and 38 min., this might be more than some can handle.

Still, the positives outweigh the negatives to create one of the first great screen musicals of the 21st Century. It finds the emotional resonance of these beloved characters and allows you to sing along to songs you love. What more could you ask than that?

I just wish they’d cut “Little People”. If ever a song should have been dropped from Les Mis, it’s that one.

Grade:            B+

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