So what if the tragic musical Les Miserables has run for 28 years, and been enjoyed by more than 60 million people in 21 languages — I didn’t want to see the movie version. I’ve had enough troubles in my own life, thank you very much, to be reminded of them mega-size onscreen. And as a devout feminist, I sure didn’t want to see yet another dramatization of society’s historical mistreatment of women, as happened with Fantine, the unwed factory worker, fired from her job and forced into prostitution.
Thus it was with reluctance that I dragged myself to a screening — and within minutes I had to admit my worries about the movie were terribly off base. Les Miserables is fantastic — a complex, exciting, meaningful work that is one of the best films of the year. Against a backdrop of despair — it is, after all, entitled The Miserable Ones — individuals rise above the callous crowds and with grace they find their wellsprings of courage and attain their highest good.
I fell in love with Hugh Jackman (the tortured ex-convict Jean Valjean), loathed Russell Crowe (Javert, the police inspector obsessed with recapturing Valjean), cried with Anne Hathaway (the unhappy Fantine), laughed with Sasha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (the buffoonish but evil innkeepers), and rooted for the young lovers Colette and Marius (Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne).
I watched in awe as the sweeping story, set in post-revolutionary France, unfolded in one grand scene after another. Under the direction of Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) the realities on which the famous story were based were revealed in all their fearsome harshness — the persecution of the lower classes, the slaughter of young rebels, and of course the vile behavior of hypocrites toward helpless young women abandoned by their men.
In this movie, the sewers of Paris aren’t navigable underground rivers, they are deathly, disgusting cesspools. The police aren’t the succor of people who need help, they are monsters marching relentlessly toward blind justice. On the other hand, the Church, usually dramatized as one of society’s main oppressors, is shown in this story to be a true example of forgiveness and compassion, in essence, the embodiment of Christ in action. God, in fact, is one of the main characters, though not given direct billing.
Les Miserables is a tribute to how good a movie can be when it’s based on terrific source material — and your budget is big enough to get the best — flawless performances from a perfect cast, breathtaking cinematography, and dazzling sets, and costumes. It’s also proof of the power of music. Almost every word is sung in this film, like an opera, so the characters are always literally in character and there’s no dissonance caused by their going in and out of music. And what music! Exquisite, singable tunes, with simple lyrics that grab your heart and make it resonate with the characters.
Seeing Anne Hathaway (as the ruined young woman Fantine) sing “I Dreamed a Dream” reminds us all of the pain of life’s disappointments. Hugh Jackman’s version of “Bring Him Home” was the lament of all parents begging Providence to send their child home from harm’s way. His performance was as much about Paris in 1832 as it is about Afghanistan and Iraq in 2012.
The way the songs were performed during the shooting of the film also enhanced their emotional appeal. Unlike most musical movies in which the singers lip sync to playback, in Les Miserables the songs were sung live, allowing the singers to be spontaneous and concentrate on their acting rather than trying to lip sync. The result is that each song was so real, you’re blown away by the undiluted raw emotion of it.
The performances, the story, and especially the music combine to make Les Miserables a powerful film experience. It’s long — 157 minutes — but every minute is so moving, you’re sorry to see “The End.” Don’t miss it.