Sunday, January 6, 2013

Les Miserables in Theaters Now

My first introduction to Les Miserables was a magnificent stage production of the musical in a beautiful old theater when I was in college. The songs and story took my breath away. In fact, I think most people are more familiar with the musical than the book. Several years after I saw it for the first time and then watched a movie version (which did not have any singing and did not do the work justice), I read through the unabridged book by Victor Hugo, nearly 1500 pages, 20-or-so pages a day. I made it through in approximately three months. Yes, it is a terribly long book that rambles and goes on long bunny trails about priests and battles and sewers. Yet, it is fascinating. What's amazing, though, is how the musical adapts the book so well. Some people think the musical improves on the book, and in some ways, I agree. While there is certainly much more story and insight to be gained through reading the book, the musical is emotionally and thematically tighter. And as for 2012's on-screen production, it's outdone any previous work I've seen and the book altogether.

Just briefly, for those who don't know the story, it's about a French prisoner named Jean Valjean who spends nearly 20 years in prison in France for stealing a loaf of bread and comes out a worse man than the one who went in. But when he gets caught stealing from a priest who had sheltered him, the priest covers for him, forgives him, gives him the silver, and tells him to use it to start over and live a better life. And that's what Jean Valjean does. He changes his name and becomes the mayor of a French town. But a very devoted police officer named Javert is determined to track him down, putting Jean Valjean on the run again. The story follows Valjean through his life as he cares for the prostitute Fantine on her deathbed; encounters the thieving Thenardiers, from whom he rescues Fantine's little daughter, Cosette; and then, several years later, helps fight in the students' revolution alongside the boy Cosette loves. It's a heartbreaking story in many ways, but its message and beauty make it an enduring, powerful tale people remember and go back to again and again.

The movie is like the musical on steroids. If you aren't familiar with Les Mis (as it's affectionately called), don't go expecting the usual movie fare, and be prepared for the singing. Les Mis is a musical done completely in song. Although the movie breaks the songs with a quickly spoken word here and there, it's still mostly music. I've heard third-hand that people are saying the words are hard to understand. That's simply not true. If you go to a musical in a theater, sometimes the words are hard to understand. If you watch a movie with a lot of exposition and "talking heads," people talking about what's going on instead of the viewer getting to see the action, sometimes the words are hard to understand. This is no harder. In fact, it's easier than a regular musical because you get to see the faces of the singers up close and you can read their lips as they sing.

On a stage, there is a great deal of make-believe involved. Not so in a movie. You can make anything seem real in a movie. But what I think is interesting is that the movie doesn't stray too far from its stage roots. The sets are lovely and gigantic and multifaceted and, well, very movie-like, but they are relatively few (for a modern screen production). Watching this Les Mis in the movie theater is similar to watching a musical on a stage, but everything that's distracting about a stage is gone. You can see the actors' faces and the emotion. There are no breaks or set changes. There are no props standing in for other things. Everything is bigger, better, closer, more cleanly done, more real...but it's still a musical, still a set, still a stage...just a fantastic one. I think this kind of shocked people who didn't know what they were getting into, people who didn't really know what Les Mis was to begin with. If you are one of those people, I'm preparing you. You are going to be watching actors sing entire solos in your face, some of them in a single shot that doesn't cut away or show any other action, and it's going to be spectacular...if you know it's coming.

As for the actors, Hugh Jackman is fabulous as Jean Valjean, but Anne Hathaway has the best solo. In one take, she belts out her heart and soul, her face a whole palette of emotions, her voice choking up and then releasing in full, and the camera never cuts away! In some ways, movie acting seems easier than stage acting because you don't have to memorize as much in one go and you get the luxury of doing it all over if you mess up. This was movie acting with all the difficultly of the stage. I wonder how many times Anne Hathaway performed that song for the camera. It's a long song. Was she perfect every time? In the movie, she was as perfect as it gets. Truly amazing.

All the actors are great. Perhaps the weakest voice is that of Russell Crowe, but his acting is still undeniably good. And I absolutely love the Thenardiers. Maybe I feel this way because they are the comedic relief in a story that's otherwise pretty heavy stuff, but casting could not have been more perfect than Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Oh. My. The scene where they are stealing from their customers as they come ridiculous and fun! Every choreographed move of that scene is genius. And it's so funny to me that even though they are despicable people, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier love each other, as much as two such people can. In the middle of all that mayhem, the wife mouths "I love you" at her husband. Hilarious! This movie needs that lighter side to give the viewer a break.

Speaking of needing a break, there are so many emotionally weighty scenes. I won't detail or spoil them here. Suffice it to say that two measly little squares of kleenex in my pocket were totally insufficient. I used up one pretty early, held it together through most of the middle, then thoroughly soaked the other tissue and finished up the movie sniffling and swiping at my face with bare fingers. Yeah, gross, but hey, my own husband cried. And if you've seen it, don't pretend you weren't suppressing a sniffle, too. But who's pretending? I've seen grown men freely admit on Facebook that this movie impacted them in deep emotional ways. With a movie this good, there's no shame in that.

Besides the obvious places where one might cry (death scenes, for example), I was also particularly struck by anything involving little children (a sick little baby with its mom on the street; also, the child Cosette singing about her castle on a cloud). As a mom, everything strikes me a little harder, I think, but especially the suffering of children. And this movie's very title tells you right off the bat, this is a story about suffering. But it's also about so much more.

As I said before, thematically and emotionally, this movie is powerful. But it's not just about the raw emotion in every song. There's such a message of redemption and hope in this story. In the opening scene, the prisoners sing, "Sweet Jesus, here my prayer [...] sweet Jesus doesn't care," reflecting Jean Valjean's initial mindset. He is in complete despair. But a priest gives Valjean a chance, and his life is forever changed. Throughout the story, you can see the candlesticks he stole from the priest, there as a reminder of all he's been forgiven. It's beautiful. My husband also pointed out to me the various times the image of the cross is used throughout the movie. And it all wraps up with the promise of heaven. Breathtaking indeed, especially for a Christian viewer who knows it all to be true.

...I sat there in the movie theater, without my popcorn and soda (because the concessions were slow and we didn't want to miss anything), suppressing a cough and feeling a headache from my sinus congestion coming on, listening to the people two rows behind narrating and clarifying the major story plots to each other as the film progressed (apparently they were among the ones who couldn't understand all the lyrics), crying and sniffling into two soaked tissues...I sat there with all that distraction, and I absolutely loved everything about this movie. See it in the theaters now while you have the chance. I don't know how you couldn't love it.

Five stars...of course!


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Natasha!!! Excellent review of an excellent movie.


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