The novel Les Miserables (loosely translated as “the wretched”) was written in the 1860s by Victor Hugo. It was subsequently a musical, a film, and now a film version of the musical.
SUPER SPOILER ALERT: This post contains SPOILERS! Do not read unless you have seen the new Les Miserables movie! Even if you’ve seen the musical and read the 1400 page book (nerd), this post contains MOVIE SPECIFIC SPOILERS! So….read at your own risk.
I saw Les Miserables last night. And after months–nay, years–of anticipation, my final verdict is—-
We’ll get to that.
First, some background. I love Les Miserables. I’ve seen it live seven times. I own four separate recordings including the 1988 symphonic recording which contains the entire score (according to Wikipedia, the symphonic recording and the Czech Revival recording are the only recordings that feature the entire score) and the original 1980 French-language concept album. I’ve seen the 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts about 500 times. At the tender age of 15, I READ THE ENTIRE 1400 PAGE NOVEL (nerd). I would pass long drives in the car by playing the entire show IN MY HEAD, because I knew it so well that I could PLAY IT BACK ON DEMAND. And, like many other girls born between 1978 and 1987, in my imagination I was Eponine wandering the streets of Paris singing forlornly of my unrequited love for whichever 8th grade idiot I was into that week who couldn’t see past the popular girls who were way prettier (in a totally cliche way) but knowing one day he’d see me for the gem I was, even if I had to die in his arms after being shot in the 1832 June Rebellion. Which was not, and should never be mistaken for, the French Revolution. That was earlier.
I have lots of Les Mis cred is what I’m saying.
So. Did the movie live up to my insane expectations? With the exception of Anne Hathaway (more on that in a bit), no. How could it have? Les Mis is too much a part of the fabric of my very being for any one production or film to ever live up to my expectations. But is it worth seeing? Absolutely.
So. Performances. Really there was only one performance, and that was Anne as Fantine. She was exquisite. The role isn’t as meaty as others she’s played (see especially Rachel Getting Married), and she spends a lot of her screen time crying. But Anne found subtleties in her despair and rage that I’ve never seen an actress find in that role. Would her performance as-is stand up on stage? Of course not–because she’s skilled enough to play to the venue at hand. And I trust that were she ever to play the role on stage she would play it differently. But she played Fantine fully, with all her fragility, despair and desperation. And she sounded beautiful. She didn’t sing to the rafters. She didn’t have to.
And I, as Anne Hathaway’s biggest fan and future best friend would like to take this opportunity to give a big IN YOUR FACE to all the people who ever dissed on her. Anne, give me a shout-out in your Oscar speech. I stood by you through Princess Diaries II and Bride Wars because I KNEW you had this in you. And an extra double IN YOUR FACE to Matt Lauer for being such a creeper.
I heart Anne.
Hugh Jackman as Valjean? Respectable. Even moving, at times. But he lacked the gravitas of Colm Wilkinson or the killer voice Alfie Boe. And I did feel that his limitations as a singer kept him from expressing the full breadth of Valjean’s experience–much of the character’s emotional life lives in the music, after all. But he was open and vulnerable and carried the film. I wish I could say the same for Russell Crowe as Javert. Friends, I don’t like to take a dig at artists. I know the guts and vulnerability it takes to give a performance. But he was just awful. He doesn’t have the type of voice the role requires and was clearly out of his depth. There’s no denying the man is a fantastic actor. But where was it in his Javert? He didn’t seem to have any sort of take on the character, didn’t seem to have a point of view. Maybe he was worried about the singing? I don’t know. But it was a disappointing performance from an actor of his calibre.
I was pleasingly surprised with Eddie Redmayne as Marius. I always though the character was sort of a pansy (and TOTALLY undeserving of Eponine, who should take a second look at Enjolras anyway because DAY-UM). But Eddie Redmayne made me take another look at the character and I found his performance sympathetic and engaging. His voice sounded lovely and dexterous and I dug him. Same with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. There’s not a lot for Cosette to do, but Amanda Seyfriend did a great job with limiting material. And they’re both super pretty with big pillowy lips.
I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, but they sort of felt like they were living in a different universe from everyone else. Considering the dark tone of the film it might have been more effective if they had gone for humor that was menacing and dark rather than slick and playful. Still, I thought they were enjoyable and fun and they seemed to be GENUINELY IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER, which I thought was a great layer not usually seen with the characters.
I was really into the revolutionary students. Aaron Tvedt as Enjolras, Fra Fee as Courfeyrac and, especially, Daniel Huddlestone as Gavroche were great. But Samantha Barks as Eponine? I just couldn’t get behind her and I can’t figure out why. She has a solid voice (she played the role in London). She was sweet and sparkling onscreen (which was part of the problem–she looked really healthy for a street urchin). There is no one thing that was wrong with anything she did. She just didn’t grab me. I can’t explain it. Eponine was my GIRL in junior high and high school, so it could be that I’m just too hard to please here. I never pretended to be unbiased!
But my absolute favorite touch of all was the casting of Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, as the Bishop. His performance was simple and understated and beautiful. Plus, it was a nice shout-out to all the lifelong fans who would catch it. The Bishop’s act of kindness to the bitter and cynical Valjean is really the crux of the entire story, so it was very circle of life-ish to have the original Valjean become the Bishop in this incarnation. And the end, when the Bishop was waiting for Valjean as he died? That was the moment that got me. Real tears, kids. Real tears.
But the film is more than the sum of its performances. It was sweeping and grand and horrific and all too relatable in 2012. The film moved me and, more importantly, inspired me. I saw parallels to our current world that I didn’t see when I was crying through On My Own in 1995. Seeing the immense poverty and the state of unrest existing between the haves and have-nots mde me think of our own society, and how maybe we should employ a little of the compassion Les Miserables celebrates in the discussion around so-called entitlement programs. It’s impossible to watch the death of Gavroche without thinking of Sandy Hook. And seeing the needless deaths of the revolutionaries affects me differently at 30 than it did at 15. Just as I know the death and final redemption of Jean Valjean will affect me more at 60 or 70 than I can even imagine now.
So spend a few hours in the dark with Les Miserables. Because it’s a story about all of us. We could know a Fantine–a good person who falls between the cracks, whose genius is lost to us in the face of crippling poverty. We were all once angsty Eponines, and are hopefully finding our ways to domestic bliss like boring old Marius and Cosette. We might be called upon to pull a Thenardier, and start shaping the world to suit our needs when it looks like everything is against us. We might all be Bishops, who with single act of trust and kindness could give hope to someone the rest of the world gives up on. We should all remember that most of the time our antagonists are Javerts–really, really good people who just don’t see the world the same way we do. It’s a story of wisdom, of heartbreak and hope. Les Miserables loosely translates to “the wretched.” But what the book, and the musical, and the movie shows us is that we are all the wretched. And that none of us are.
And as a parting gift, I bring you the man himself.