Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Les Miserables" (2012) -- Initial Thoughts

I cannot remember the last time I have cried that hard during a movie.  Not in the last year or two, at any rate.  I'm very glad I ended up seeing this myself instead of with my mom, which was my original plan, because I think that, even with someone who has known me all my life, I would have been inhibited and not allowed myself to connect so deeply with the characters on screen.

(WARNING:  This is going to be very long, very spoilage-ful, and probably a bit purple at times.  Forgive me, I have a heart full of love for this music and these characters, and for several of these actors, so I may very well wax poetic or maudlin or both.)

Where to begin?

Perhaps with the opening scene.  My first thoughts were, "A shipyard?  What?  Dude, no, this is all wrong -- it's supposed to be a quarry!  Aw, man, if they changed the very opening scene, what else are they going to mess with?"  But I get it now, the symbolism of the giant ship that failed to launch -- it's the failed French Revolution, which was big and mighty and powerful... and did not stay afloat.  The very opening titles inform us that there is a king on the French throne once again.  And so it is up to the looked-down-upon to try to salvage what they can and start again.

Okay, so I liked that in retrospect, though at the time I was nervous about the change.  I also liked how they spent a few tiny scenes showing us just how hopeless Valjean's life is once he's on parole, because it made his theft from the priest much more understandable.  I think I really began to connect with the movie during "What Have I Done" -- at first, I was having a little trouble thinking of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and not as Hugh Jackman, but with that song, I slipped into the movie and didn't resurface until about halfway through the end credits.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) on the outs

Before I saw this, I was not at all sure about Hugh playing Valjean, I will admit.  When I first heard, a year or more ago, that he and Russell Crowe were signing on for a movie version of the Les Mis musical, my first thought was how perfect Crowe would be as Valjean -- he's got the sort of burly build that really would lend itself to Valjean's feats of superhuman strength, plus the underlying tenderness that would make his adoption of Cosette very sweet.  And as for Hugh Jackman, well, I love Hugh Jackman!  And I could see him as a relentless, suspicious, bloodhound of a Javert.  Delightful!  I could already hear their "Confrontation" duet, with Crowe growling out "I am warning you Javert, I'm a stronger man by far -- There is power in me yet!"  And Hugh snarling back with, "Men like you can never change!  A man such as you."  Oh, it was going to be so delicious!

I'd still love to see a version with them in those roles.  I wish this was actually on stage, like Olivier and Gielgud doing Romeo & Juliet and alternating  as Romeo and Mercutio.  Ah well, I can dream, can't I.

Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe)

Anyway, this seems like a fitting point to discuss Russell Crowe's performance as Inspector Javert.  I've had several people tell me they were disappointed by him, and I could see how they might be.  He does not snarl and sneer like, say, Geoffrey Rush in the 1998 non-musical version.  He spends most of the movie looking very weary, his eyes veiled, hiding himself behind his uniform as it were.  Javert in the novel, if I remember aright (it's been a decade since I read it) did work hard to hide the fact that he was, as he sings here, "born inside a jail" and "from the gutter too."

Javert and Valjean during "Confrontation"

So I can accept Crowe's portrayal of Javert as very guarded, very private, very correct.  Especially since, when Valjean eventually saves his life, he turns savage, berating his nemesis for turning him loose instead of having his revenge.  Crowe's Javert comes to life there, shedding his carefully maintained persona to reveal his inner turmoil.  When he sings his final song, with "And must I now begin to doubt, Who never doubted all these years," I really felt him falling to pieces, undone by Valjean's act of forgiveness.

The only quibble I have with Russell Crowe as Javert, in fact, is all about the staging of his solo, "Stars."  It's BO-RING!  He's pacing along a rooftop, true, but he's got his arms stiff at his side, all soldierly and unbending.  I can see that they were trying to emphasize that unbendingness, his rigidity of purpose and person, but would a clenched fist raised aloft at the end have been too much to ask?  And while they were at it, couldn't they have transposed the song like half an octave lower so we could have had more of the menacing growl he lent to "Confrontation" and the scene where Valjean freed him?  But those are trivial issues, and ones not necessarily under Crowe's control.

Hugh Jackman was, to put it mildly, perfect.  But, then, isn't he always?  I have never seen him turn in a bad performance.  I've seen him in some roles I didn't care for, but that's a matter of my taste, not his talent.

As for the rest of the principles, I enjoyed them.  Amanda Seyfried was an ethereal, wondering Cosette, and I actually liked Eddie Redmayne's Marius -- I usually roll my eyes at Marius for being such a giddy schoolboy, and at Cosette for falling for a pretty face she doesn't know.  But Redmayne isn't pretty at all!  Kind of looks like a freckled frog, really, and so I felt like there was more to Cosette's liking for him than just "he's cute."  (I spent most of his screen time trying to figure out where I'd seen him before -- finally had to look on when I got home; he's Matt Damon's son in The Good Shepherd.)

Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried)

I wished Fantine could have had more screen time -- Samantha Barks was winsome and wistful, and absolutely nailed "On My Own," my second-favorite song.

Fantine (Samantha Barks)

Speaking of favorite songs, I have two that tie for first:  "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Who Am I?"  And they.  were.  amazing.  I don't think I shall ever be able to hear "I Dreamed a Dream" again without envisioning Anne Hathaway's Fantine and bawling.  I think it will be a long time before I can bring myself to belt it out in the shower again.  They filmed that song in one long take, pulled so close in on her face that her anguish was almost visceral.  People say she's a lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and I say she would deserve it based on those few minutes alone.  Anne Hathaway has not hitherto been a favorite of mine -- I like her okay, I've seen her in a handful of movies, but she's never really captured my affection.  Until now, that is.  Wow.  Hers may be the strongest performance in the film.

Fantine (Anne Hathaway)

Let's see, who have I not talked about yet?  Umm... ummm... okay, fine I'll briefly mention the Thenardiers.  I can't wait to see this on DVD so I can fast-forward through "Master of the House," because I LOATHE that song.  Helena Bonham-Carter made Madame Thenardier kind of sweet, though, which I wasn't expecting.  But it seems to me that she has become a female version of John Cleese -- John Cleese always plays John Cleese, and she always plays Helena Bonham-Carter, all Bellatrix-LeStrange-d to the max.  I do want to see The King's Speech because I'd like to see her in something where her hair isn't teased two feet from her head and she's not wearing prosthetic teeth.  Might be great!

I'd say my favorite bit of staging was how they did the finale on a giant barricade, harking back to the set piece for the stage version.

The finale

I also liked the first meeting of Valjean and Cosette, set in a fairy-tale-gone-wrong woods.  They're both tentative and shy, so very sweet.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Finally, though, I'm always irked by the tacked-on, modernistic "moral" at the very end:  "To love another person is to see the face of God."  Er, what?  No, no, no, the point of Victor Hugo's novel was much more than a touchy-feely catch-phrase.  It's more about the difference between living a life guided only by the Law, which ultimately leads to despair (Javert), versus a life filled with the Gospel, which leads to peace (Valjean).  Again, it's been ten years since I read the novel, but that is what I took away from it, so much more profound than just "love is important."

Well, there, those are my thoughts on this movie.  Whew!  Only took me about 4 hours to write, thanks to a few small interruptions children.


  1. Wow! Now I really want to see it - and maybe alone would be best, as you point out :-) I love the moral you got from Les Mis - You have been influenced by Lutherans, methinks...

  2. Sadly this one was underwhelming for my tastes. When you've seen the intensity of the 1998 version, it's hard for this to live up. Aside from that, I don't think the story works well as a musical. Don't get me wrong, it could have but just... failed.

    1. Actually, the 1998 version felt rushed to me, and a bit cut-and-paste in some places. Liam Neeson never fails to delight, of course, and I would probably agree he's a better Valjean than Hugh Jackman overall.

      The musical actually started out as a concept album by two Frenchmen, was then turned into a stage musical, and is now this movie. Were you familiar with the music at all before seeing this? It's not to everyone's taste, I know -- one of my best friends loves opera and a lot of musicals, but doesn't like this music at all. The stage version is very minimalist, lots of just standing and singing while wearing costumes, not really any acting, so it could be that this impressed me particularly in comparison to that.

  3. I agree with you that this version was fantastic! I had never heard all of the music before, and to be completely honest, I left the theater breathless. The costuming and makeup seemed much better than the 1998 version, I thought...But really, I guess I just can't say that I like one better than the other! :) Thanks for the awesome review!
    Oh, and as for The King's Speech, that is a must-see!!! The story is extremely inspiring, and Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are phenomenal. Helena Bonham-Carter makes for a very elegant queen mum, too! And no, her hair isn't teased up two feet above her head in this one. ;)

    1. I do like the 1998 version as well -- it's hard to go wrong with Liam Neeson!

      And I saw "The King's Speech" last month, my review is here if you're interested. It was great! And HB-C was wonderful in it.

  4. I've come late to this (and I confess that I still haven't seen the movie, along with so many others). I saw Jackman and Crowe on the BAFTAs* (they gave the award for best pic which went to "The Artist" -- yay!) and when I heard that they would be in "Les Miz", I had the same thought as you, that Jackman was perfect for Javert and Crowe for Valjean. The only thing is, I don't see how Crowe could have sung the part. If they'd been doing another non-musical version (a la 1998), then it would have been a no-brainer -- at least to me. But Crowe (IMHO) is not a good enough singer to carry off the singing. Jackman, of course, has a ton of Broadway behind him so I knew he'd be fine.

    I'll have to scope out Amazon and see if it's on Instant Video. If it is, I'll watch it there, or see if I can find it on Netflix. Now I really want to see it! :)

    *cute interlude - it's on YouTube if you want to see it, Crowe being all Australian and growly and Hugh taking a higher road. :)

    1. I'm sure Amazon has it on instant video.

      Actually, Crowe did quite a good job with the singing, though like I said here, I wish they'd transposed "Stars" down a bit, as he's much better on the low notes, all growly and delicious. But now that I have the soundtrack, I'm much more impressed with that particular song when I don't have to watch the boring visuals that go with it. Of course, he sings in a band (formerly Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, now The Ordinary Fear of God). They do tours and release albums, though for some reason, no one I know but me seems to have ever heard of them.

      I'll have to check out the BAFTA snippet after the kiddies are in bed tonight. Thanx!


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