If you are allergic to emotion, this may not be the film for you. But if your heart yearns for good to triumph over evil, for beauty to emerge from squalor, and for the vindication of strong heroes who can fight, shoot, and pray, Les Misérables will be an exhilarating experience. Putting this story before a movie-going culture that may never read the book or see the musical is definitely a good thing.
It is astonishing that a film version of Les Misérables was made at all at this point in American cultural history, especially a film told entirely in song. This faith-saturated story of sin, redemption, courage, and heroism is an utter anomaly in our post-modern landscape of doubt, ambiguity, and meaninglessness. I remember thinking the same thing when I first saw the musical in London in 1989, after living in post-Christian Europe for seven years. I could not have guessed that Les Miz would go on to break all box office records in a 30-year run to become the longest running musical of all time, seen by 60 million people in 42 countries.
After seeing it four times with Broadway casts in various cities across America in the years since, and hearing the sound track several hundred times (our children played it incessantly), I was hard to impress with a film version. I found that this film of Victor Hugo’s novel is moving in a ways that the stage cannot be. The camera offers the intimacy of close-ups views on the protagonists who weep, quiver, and shout, as well as spectacular panoramas of sweeping cityscapes and mountains. The cast played the story with its full range of intense emotions, which grip the viewer in the drama. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine deserve the many awards recently garnered for their moving performances.
Anne Hathaway threw herself so thoroughly into the role that she took another 25 pounds off her already thin frame in five weeks to play the factory worker turned prostitute, dying of consumption. She actually had her head shaved with the cameras rolling, as Fantine sells her hair to pay for the care of her young daughter. Hathaway overrode her musical theater training to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” with raw emotion instead of prettiness. Fantine lies in the hull of a beached ship used as a brothel, remembering the father of her illegitimate child: “He took my childhood in his stride, then autumn came and he was gone.” Wracked with despair as she realizes she has lost her dignity, her self-esteem, and all hope, the camera is close on her face, her brimming eyes are rimmed with red and wrenching sobs choke her words. It is impossible not to be moved.
Purists who loved the gorgeous voices in the musical came away disappointed in the uneven musicality of the casting, which must have been influenced by the need for names with box office appeal. Having a pristine classically trained voice proved less essential than the ability to deliver a wide range of emotions in a tight close-up. Director Tom Hooper built the cast around Hugh Jackman, whose singing is more like talking on a pitch. Jackman’s spirited acting almost made up for it. Almost. Russell Crowe, who had never sung a role before, lacked the powerful baritone his stage counterparts brought to the role of Inspector Javert, but in his duets with Jackman, at least they struck a balance. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen played a version of Madame and Monsieur Thénardier that was more sly and wicked than the bawdy, bigger-than-life characters innkeepers on stage.
Eddie Redmayne brought a clear, strong voice to his role of Marius, as well as acting experience, most recently in My Week with Marilyn. He pursued Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried, who had already merged song and acting in Mama Mia! Several veterans of Les Miz musical productions made their film debuts, including Samantha Barks as a compelling Eponine, and the charming children who played Gavroche and the young Cosette. Aaron Tveit displayed his musical Broadway experience from Hairspray and Wicked in the role of Enjolras. He and the other singers in the ensemble of young men were so good that they reminded us what excellent singing actually sounds like.
Criticism aside, the singing in Les Misérables does bring an immediacy to the film that is quite appealing and fresh. Director Tom Hooper made the bold decision to record the songs live on site, rather than lip synching studio recordings. The film was shot on location in France and England using landmark historical sites and authentic buildings of the period, and on spectacular sets reconstructing Paris of 1832. The actors wore concealed earpieces through which they heard an off-stage piano accompanist as they sang live. The songs grew almost organically from the action, so every breath, sigh and sob of the actors is exactly what we see and hear as it happens. The orchestration was added later, to capture each nuance of tempo and emphasis.
Hooper made the gutsy decision to film the singing live because he didn’t want to simply make a movie of the musical. He says he wanted to make it a true cinematic experience, using the unique strengths of the medium, while keeping the DNA of the original musical. Dialogue written in the initial film script was compressed into new musical bridges between the songs and expanded into one completely new song, “Suddenly,” which was composed expressly for the film.
Because cameras can change scenes faster than the stage, the film version has the luxury of including several scenes from the book that didn’t make it onto the stage. More of the bishop’s story is rendered in the film in the pivotal scene where the newly released prisoner Valjean is welcomed in by a trusting bishop, whose silver Valjean steals. In another addition, Valjean and Cosette scale the walls of Paris in a dramatic escape from Inspector Javert, who is in hot pursuit on horseback, as the fugitives take refuge in a convent, hidden from prying eyes.
The arc of the story from Valjean’s release from prison through his spiritual awakening and twenty years of his life raises the timeless themes of justice, mercy, duty, selflessness, blood-red courage, and honor. Their dramatic treatment is a bracing double-slap to contemporary consciences. The rousing choruses and whispered prayers are oxygen for a culture anesthetized with mindless relativism. Why has Les Misérables maintained its steady popularity over the past thirty years on stage and now made it onto the big screen? Is it possible that the unabashed call in the final chorus to “join in our crusade” is rousing slumbering souls?
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Barbara J. Elliott is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and the President of the Center for Cultural Renewal and Adjunct Professor in the Honors College of Houston Baptist University. She is the author of five books, including Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities. Read more of Mrs. Elliott’s TIC essays here.