Movie Spotlight: Les Miserables

Les Miserables opens with a rousing musical number and stunning visuals which not only intrigue and immerse the audience immediately into the world of early 1800’s France, but also completely and unequivocally arrests the attention. Seeing the film was my introduction to the franchise, and so I must judge the movie as a standalone piece of art, and not in light of the stage production upon which it was based.

This film espouses a purposefully grittily realistic voice, which serves to create a world that is both real, and also emotionally devastating. It is in your face from the opening sequence to the final moments, with hardly any lulls. It is an emotionally exhausting ballad, haunting you before the movie is even concluded. If you have the stomach to fight till the end, your spirits will soar with the banners of the revolutionaries on their barricade, as the vivid scarlet cuts through the sky.

The filmmakers took a bold risk in capturing their actors singing their pieces while acting. Director Tom Hooper’s vision called for this realism and “minimalism,” as he called it. The result is a film that is colossal in scope, yet feels realistic and approachable. This is a cry that the people could voice. We want to cry Vive le France! with the best of them in the film, and then remember we’re holding popcorn instead of a flintlock. The locations feel real, because there is consistency and continuity with set pieces and locales, and this kept the viewer’s mind from wandering the vast streets of Paris in search of the story; the characters forced you from beginning to end to care about them; they gave an ultimatum in the very first scene; you cannot help but feel the plight of the miserable ones.

Instead of the live set capture being the debacle they feared, it was in short, genius. The gratuitous close ups of Jean Valjean, (portrayed by Hugh Jackman,) in the church as he contemplates his own identity, allows the audience a chance to ascertain just that, without necessarily providing a didactic answer, but instead in some cases, begging the question: who indeed?

The nuances and inflections captured by allowing the actors to project their own voices lent a gripping view into their innermost soul which without this device would have felt little more than contrived, and poorly at that. From a purely audiophile standpoint, the score might have been ”prettier” had it been studio recorded and then dubbed over, with some of the notes being noticeably off key, but in other film projects that have followed this protocol, especially in film adaptations of stage productions, this use of “canned” singing has done little for the story, if not stolen the very soul of the actors away from them. The gritty realism lent to the performance from these deliveries can be seen no better than in Fantine’s character (Anne Hathaway.) Spontaneous tears fell from many an eye as she collapsed in shame and sang, chokingly, that she had a dream, but it died. Fantine’s whole part is heart-rending and gut-wrenching to witness, but at the same time is so strangely beautiful.

The biggest strength of this approach was that it retained the elements of a dramatic musical. It was not a Broadway show on film, and it was not a movie that happened to include singing. The marriage of the two often felt natural and believable, and didn’t rely too heavily on either medium. It avoided the temptation to rely on gratuitous special effects, but didn’t completely eliminate them, using them to advantage of the story, rather than hoping for the effects to carry the movie.
My only real irk with this movie was the character of Javert. Russell Crowe is a brilliant actor, for whom I have a great deal of respect. In some scenes, I thought he was brilliant. Overall, however, his character, sadly, just seemed to be lacking, something. Oftentimes the thought crossing my mind as he appeared onscreen was “there’s Russell Crowe,” not “here comes Javert.” He was the least believable character for me. Sometimes he would shine through, for instance in the scene where he nearly catches Valjean outside the notorious Thernadier’s “Inn,” who serve as somewhat comedic, albeit revolting, sub-plot villains. This moment left me on the edge of my seat, wondering if Javert would indeed at last capture his elusive quarry. (SPOILER ALERT).  Javert’s most believable moment is, unfortunately, his death. He jumps from a height into swirly water, and with a teeth- shattering crack hits a concrete wall at the bottom. There was a collective shudder and gasp from the audience, but I thought it added a nice nod to the reality of just how terrible suicide truly is. Sometimes this gets brushed over in film, making suicide feel neat and clean, but Hooper unflinchingly forced us to face the grisly reality of death.

Nothing about this movie feels neat and clean, from the faces of the poor, to the purposefully repulsive depiction of the lives of “working girls” and other gutter “low life” types, to the gritty realism with which the actors sing. But this is where Les Miserables triumphs: it is a song for the miserable ones, and Tom Hooper avoided the temptation to cover their wounds with a lot of pretty bandages, but instead, let them sing for themselves. It is intense without being over the top and contrived, and the result is a rousing and triumphant ballad that soars well beyond the scope of it’s roughly two and a half hours. It is an undertaking; it is not the kind of movie you can sit down and watch without investing in it. You will be absorbed, for better or worse, into a suffering world, which cries out for absolution and vindication. In the final moments, Fantine urges us to dream, and by dreaming to love another person. Even though our dreams be crushed, she affirms that we will be better for the journey, because “to love another is to see the face of God.”