Les Miserables is a complicated movie to review because Victor Hugo wrote a very broad and far reaching book in 1862 upon which the movie and stage play are based. The book is populated with a multitude of characters from many different backgrounds. There are so many plots and subplots running throughout a long time span that it is difficult to keep everything straight. However, this is not entirely Victor Hugo’s fault as this was typical of novels during that time.
In addition to the complex plot the story is told almost entirely through song. So what is it that keeps readers and audiences captivated over the last 150 years? Perhaps it is because it touches on so many principles and emotions that affect us all. The story explores love, hate, redemption, passion, loss, sacrifice, patriotism, right versus wrong, and survival of the human spirit. All of these themes are expressed through moving lyrics and emotionally engulfing music. I dare anyone to sit through the movie and not experience a lump in the throat, a tear in the eye, or even a chuckle at times.
As I said, the plot is too complicated to go into depth here but I will break it down to its very simplest form.
Les Miserable, or Les Mis as it is commonly called, translates from French to mean The Miserable, The Miserable Ones, The Poor or Poor Ones, The Wretched Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims. The drama covers the time period of 1815 to the June Rebellion of 1832.
The main character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. Valjean vows to make a new life for himself after his parole and help from a compassionate priest. He becomes a factory owner and mayor of a town in France; however, he is constantly hunted and harassed by his nemesis and former prison guard, Javert (Russell Crow) for breaking parole.
Hugh Jackman and Russell Crow
I liked the movie but after having seen it as a stage play several times I can’t help but make comparisons. A couple of things stand out. First, I have to agree with many critics that the singing is not as good as it should be. The roles are demanding and the stage actors are mostly classically trained singers. Although Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a good singer, I didn’t feel his voice is as strong as it should be for this rigorous role. Also, criticism has been directed toward Russell Crow’s (Javert) performance. Here, I disagree with the critics. True, Russell Crow is not a great singer (he is a rock singer) compared to those who have filled the role in the past, but I like the down-to-earth ruggedness he brings to the role. How many prison guards do you know who are classically trained singers?
Secondly, something I found annoying is the way some scenes were edited. Many of the songs are very emotionally charged and in a theatre you have an opportunity after a musical number to applaud and soak in the emotional atmosphere. In the movie it jumps from scene to scene without that break to reflect on what just happened. A simple fade to black after some of the production numbers would give the viewer time to digest the scene. I felt robbed of that emotional experience.
A new approach tried by the director and one which was successful was recording the singers live rather than dubbing it in afterwards. This allowed the actor/singer to put more emphasis and interpretation into the scene. By using this technique the singing is not perfect all the time but it adds more realism and emotion to the movie.
Mixed reviews and 8 Academy Award Nominations
Les Miserables has received mixed reviews by the critics but received eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, lead actor (Hugh Jackman), supporting actress (Anne Hathaway), production design, costumes, makeup and hairstyling, original song and sound mixing. Anne Hathaway is thought to be the front runner in her category and may very well win it. This role is a stretch for her and she is a wonderful Fantine.
Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne play Cosette and Marius the love interests of the story. They are great together and their voices blend beautifully. Redmayne is fairly new to the scene but I predict you will be seeing much more of him in the future.
I must also comment on my favorite couple of the show, the Thenardier’s. They provide the comic relief with their famous number, Master of the House. They are sleazy owners of an inn where they feed their guests less than edible food and even charge them “extra for the lice.” The Thenardier’s are played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonaham Carter. They are outrageously funny however I had a little difficulty understanding Carter’s lyrics. You could say Carter was typecast for the role as her hair and makeup could have come from her own closet.
Les Mis will stir your soul
If you haven’t seen the stage play of Les Mis then you must see the movie. It is a classic that will stir you down to your soul in spite of its few flaws. I know of no other play that captures such a wide range of the human condition from life and death struggles to the many kinds of love. There is a line that comes at the end of the play when Jean Valjean is dying that says so much in such few words and it hits me like a lightning strike every time I hear it. It is—to love a person is to know the face of God. This gives you an idea of the genius of the play.
Overall, I enjoyed Les Miserables and expect it to win many awards, however I don’t anticipate it winning best picture.
I give Les Miserables a B.