Having seen Les Miserables on stage twice in New York City and once in London and being, of course, a huge fan, I did not think the production could be significantly improved. How does one improve upon musical, lyrical, and thematic perfection? I mean, I truly believe that the music and libretto of Les Mis is one of the finest works of art in a generation.
Director Tom Hooper significantly improved Les Miserables.
This is not to say that there were no trade-offs in this "improvement." They are such that the film version and the stage version are to be (and should be) viewed as completely different productions with very different aims. Differences inherent between the silver screen and the stage. Hooper very wisely realized he needed to make a film; not capture a stage production on film.
I will give you my bottom line right up front. And, if you're interested in more, you can read on to your heart's content. I am tempted to say that Les Miserables is the finest movie I have ever seen, but that would probably overstate it. But it is probably the finest film I have seen in a movie theater, on the big screen, and in surround sound. I will tell you why, first from a production standpoint, then from the perspective of individual performances, and finally by reflecting on the larger themes of the story.
As I mentioned, Les Mis is not a stage musical captured on film. It is a dramatic film in its own right. The emphasis is not on vocal virtuosity at all, although there is plenty of it. Hardly anyone sings in a recognizably "Broadway" style. The cameras are close, the singing is (for the very first time) live on set (no studio overdubbing), and the result is extremely raw and emotional. So raw and emotional that it is, at first, very uncomfortable. The unfiltered immediacy almost makes you crave the intervention of a studio recording, in hopes that its slick, gauzy reverb effects might serve as a buffer for your own emotional participation in the story. No such luxury. The characters sound like ordinary people would sound if they were singing through their various tumultuous real-life experiences. Words are cut off short; long and dramatic pauses are taken; and, most importantly, the actors look as if they are actually thinking about what words to say (sing) next. They look and sound unscripted. If you are in love with the beautiful vocal virtuosity on display in stage theaters around the world, if you like "pretty" versions, then this movie will take some getting used to.
And this is Hooper's genius. When casting this production, he apparently did not look for great Broadway stars, people who could handle the musical part. He went first for film actors, people who could first capture the delicate emotional range necessary make this work on film. A Broadway star does some acting, surely, but their projection is literally for "the back row." They do nothing that requires a camera six inches away from the face while literally weeping in anguish and singing. Great film actors have the weeping in anguish thing down; Hooper gambled that they could pull off the singing part, too. That was the greatest gamble ever.
Hooper has, at very least, redefined the movie musical. I predict that nobody will primarily use pre-recorded tracks and lip-syncing ever again.
The stage version gets quite a bit of reorganizing and trimming in Hooper's hands, and I found his directorial decisions impeccable. For instance, he moves Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" just a bit later, after she has sold herself into prostitution. The song works infinitely better after she has hit rock bottom, as opposed to simply losing her job (i.e., the musical). Read on for my take on Hathaway's performance. In the stage version, "One Day More" marks the mid-point and transition to the final act. Hooper rearranges and finishes Act II with Javert's "Stars." It all just works, quite wonderfully.
Fans of the musical might wonder how Hooper has managed to turn in a movie under three hours, since that is the typical run time of the stage version. He does it so skillfully even veteran fans of the stage version might not pick up on exactly how he does it. It is a remarkable feat, especially considering the leeway he gives each actor in pacing the songs. As a fan, I feared that they would "rush" the songs, keep the tempo up, just to fit the story into a time frame shorter than three hours. Actually, all the songs were far slower (and more meaningful) than the stage version. So how did he fit it?
If you were carefully paying attention, there is a lot of "first versing" going on in the lesser songs. "Castle on a Cloud" gets a single verse; Gavroche loses a verse or two; the Thenardiers lose quite a bit of material, including an entire song at the end; "Drink With Me" gets one verse instead of three; same goes for "Turning." I'm fairly certain a verse is even lost in "A Little Fall of Rain." This is all done so flawlessly it is simply not noticeable unless you're an uber-fan like me. None of these decisions bothered me.
Hooper did another thing of genius. He needed visual, cinematic material to help "fill in" some of the details of the story that the musical doesn't address. And he went precisely where he should have gone: directly to the source material. The details are directly from Victor Hugo's novel. The john dumps snow down Fantine's dress. Fantine spits in Valjean's face. Javert offers to resign to the Mayor. Valjean buys Cosette a coveted doll. Valjean and Cosette escape by climbing a wall into a convent, there meeting a man Valjean had saved years before. Gavroche and his street urchin friends live in a hollowed out statue of an elephant. Marius and Eponine live next door to each other. And much, much more. I am so appreciative that Tom Hooper didn't invent things out of his own imagination, but went first to Victor Hugo. This adds tremendous richness and depth to the film.
Another wise decision was the significant (and shocking, to me) downplaying of the Thenardier role. If you have ever seen the stage version, you will know that by the end of the show, the "clown" characters Monsieur and Madame Thenardier become fan favorites, receiving huge and sustained applause. On stage, the "comic relief" is necessary and fully exploited. In Mr. Hooper's film, however, the Thenardiers, while still funny, are quite simply refused the same kind of spotlight. This is because in Hooper's version of the story, there is nothing to admire or cheer in the Thenardiers. Glorifying their cynicism and greed would detract from the heroism of Jean Valjean. Hooper thus uses them very sparingly. Everyone leaves the stage version talking about the Thendardiers. Nobody leaves the film talking about Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. And that is precisely as it should be.
One final item on the production "rearranging." The end of the movie was like a surreal dream to me. For years, I have vocally felt it an extreme injustice that at the end of Jean Valjean's life, the two characters who appear to usher him into heaven are Fantine and Eponine. Eponine? What in the world is she doing there? She had no connection with Valjean whatsoever, and I always thought it one of the very few distinct weaknesses in the play. I have always thought, rather vehemently, that the production would be improved by substituting Eponine's final part for The Bishop who originally converted Valjean. And, lo and behold, Tom Hooper made precisely that substitution.
I can die a happy man.
When I heard that Hooper had cast the flighty star of such moving films as The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway, in the part of Fantine, you can count me as one fan who groaned in despair. This must be some kind of a joke. My only comfort was that Fantine could only ruin the first third of the film, due to her untimely death. Let her squeak some songs, and then get out of the way.
That's why they don't pay me the big bucks.
It would be very unprecedented, indeed, for an actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress when she only appears in the first third of a film. But mark my words: that is exactly what is going to happen. And it will be well deserved. Anne Hathaway's performance singing "I Dreamed a Dream" is simply the most moving, emotional, and compelling performance ever captured on film. It is utterly and completely transcendent. I am not exaggerating: the best scene in any movie. Ever. The new gold standard.
Hugh Jackman cut his teeth on the musical stage, and they did well to hire him for his role as Jean Valjean. The vocal range is slightly beyond him. It took everything he had to sing "Bring Him Home," and you can tell there was nothing left in the tank afterwards. Not exactly Colm Wilkinson (whom they nicely cast as the Bishop). But his conversion scene near the beginning sets the tone for the whole film, and is simply stunning. I found myself thinking, "Jumping Jehoshaphat, these people are for real." Jackman captures the full range of emotion necessary to play Valjean. When he sings, "One word from him and I'd be back / beneath the lash, upon the rack," he convinces you that he knows exactly what it means to be "upon the rack." Likewise when he sings of the "cesspool of my sin." I don't know how a guy acts a conversion so effectively that you think you're seeing the real thing.
Russell Crowe was another of those casting decisions met with much groaning and sighing from me. Let me say this: if Russell Crowe was being asked to sing the part of Javert alongside a host of Broadway musical greats, the talent chasm could never be overcome. He has all the markings of an amateur singer: he "swoops" to his notes, up and down like waves on the sea. This is unfortunate because one of the things directors of the stage version try to do is match Javert's voice with Javert's personality. Utterly rigid and unbending. Crowe's voice is, well, bending.
But the genius, again, of what Hooper has done, actually reduces significantly the size of that chasm. This is because every member of the cast is singing live, with no "pretty" overdubs. They all sound just like ordinary people singing in ordinary circumstances, right there in front of you. In other words, Crowe is not being asked to sing alongside great musical talents. All he needed to do is sound natural and normal and the talent chasm would be reduced. This he effectively accomplished, with the help of the musical director, who timed some marvelous key changes to keep the songs well within his range. As a fan, I noticed these key changes, and they surely sounded different to my ears, but not unpleasant at all. All in all, Russell Crowe shined in exactly in that which Russell Crowe shines: having a strict, military bearing.
This raw style also saves Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) from appearing overmatched and out of place. She doesn't need to be a powerhouse soprano. She needed only to hit the notes effectively, and this she accomplishes with aplomb. I expected a soft, warbly voice. I got a soft, warbly voice that works because of the cinematic context Tom Hooper has created.
Eddie Redmayne (Marius), on the other hand, is a revelation. In fact, his rendition of "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" very nearly steals the entire show. I was delighted to have a Marius with some real emotional substance. Singing that song with real tears pouring down one's cheeks is almost superhuman. Sincerely well done!
I read one reviewer who dissed Samantha Barks (Eponine) as being, basically, out of place as the sole real Broadway powerhouse. The reviewer accused her of singing "On My Own" like she was on American Idol. My expectations were thus lowered. And, behold, what I found is that that reviewer was grossly unfair. Yes, Barks is blessed with an amazing voice; but she threw herself into the acting, as well, and did a very fine job of it. American Idol, it was most certainly not.
All in all, I thought the casting was superb. There was not a note that rang false.
The themes of Les Miserables are both familiar and unfamiliar.
The clash between law and grace is well known. Javert is the man of the law; his moral compass is like the stars in the heavens, unbending and unyielding: "So it is written on the doorways of paradise / that those who falter and those who fall / must pay the price." His is a closed universe, cloaked in strict justice: it is karma in which he believes, that fate that provides a world "that can hold" together. Javert's worldview cannot account for grace. Grace moves, as Bono of U2 sings, "outside of karma." It upends our facile assumptions about strict cause-and-effect justice. Law, in Javert's worldview, freezes an individual for all time as one who obeys the law or a lawbreaker. He has no room for real mercy and real transformation, such as occurs in the life of Jean Valjean. Javert cannot understand or deal with a man who forgives others and shows mercy to the "miserables" of this world. And, when shown mercy himself by his dreaded enemy ("The man of mercy comes again!" he derisively sings), chooses not to live in such a world any longer, a world "that cannot hold." He "escapes now from that world / from the world of Jean Valjean." Karma and grace cannot coexist. One either lives perfectly by the whole law, or one casts himself upon God's mercy in Christ. Those are the only two options, and that is why so many Christians the world over have loved and cherished this musical. It presents the options as clearly as anything.
But there is so much more that is less noticed and less well-known. Les Miserables is, at its broadest, about competing eschatologies. It is not to be overlooked that the political context of this film is a hot-headed group of idealistic young schoolboys who desire to reenact the French Revolution. Listen to the lyrics of their songs. They are after nothing less than heaven on earth right smack dab in the here-and-now, when all inequities disappear and "every man will be a king." Somewhere "beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see!" They will bring in this utopia. In the words of political scientist Eric Voegelin, they are dedicated to "immanentizing the eschaton." Bringing in heaven on earth in the here-and-now.
They all die. Everyone but Marius, that is. (Sorry for the spoiler.) Their grand ambitions were utterly worthless. "My friends, don't ask me / what your sacrifice was for! / Empty chairs at empty tables / where my friends will sing no more," cries Marius.
But the movie ends with a transformed eschatology. Not heaven on earth in the here-and-now, but heaven as the "age to come." The composers take the revolutionaries' song, "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and transform it before our eyes and ears into a longing and hope for the new heavens and the new earth.
For the wretched of the earth / there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end / and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom / in the Garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare / they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken / and all men will have their reward!
The producers of Les Miserables, whether intentionally or not, have written a work completely subversive of the progressive pretensions that utopia can be successfully achieved in the here-and-now. The audience looks back in horror at the complete waste of human life brought about by Enjolras and the rest of Marius's friends, and looks ahead at Jean Valjean's own communion with God in the new creation as a source of inspiration and hope.
Did I say this wasn't the best film I've ever seen?
I take it back.