Les Misérables is one of those musicals I know a lot about but don’t know really well. About ten years ago my wife dragged me along to a local theater production of the show. But because of the joys of low budget sound systems and amateur performers, I didn’t really understand what was going on. There was a big wall made out of furniture and some guys with guns singing about a revolution. I was a bit lost. So going into the big screen version of Les Misérables, I was after one thing – to take all these songs that I’ve heard a million times on singing based reality TV shows and give me a story that can grab me by the heart and make me care.
Well, at least the singing was good.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-con in 19th century France. Unable to get work, he breaks parole and goes on the run after being granted a second chance by a kindly priest. While on the run, he raises the daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), finds himself caught up in the rebellion of a group of young men and constantly pursued by the ruthless Inspector Javert (Russell Crow). The whole time, Valjean longs for justice in this world and wonders if he’ll find redemption for his actions.
It can’t be easy bringing one of the most beloved musicals of all time to the big screen. People will be comparing the actor’s performances to every performance by every actor to ever play the role. What works on a confined stage needs to be radically rethought with the freedom of the cinema screen. And you have to give the audience a reason to stay in their seats when you reach the intermission point of the stage production (I know I instinctively went to stand up at the end of One Day More). Overall, the performances are fantastic. While some actors struggle with the pieces they are given, rarely does it take you out of the moment. The decision to record the singing live on set has produced some truly emotional and heart wrenching performances. I wonder what would have happened if some of the songs had been replaced with dialogue to better convey the story and mood – surely too controversial a move to even consider.
I loved the work that each of these actors put into their roles. The directing, however, I was less than happy with. Director Tom Hooper seems to struggle with taming this behemoth. The movie flounders when it comes to translating the show from stage to screen. The sweeping, cinematic shots seem at odds with the emotional character work, with grand backdrops added to scenes for no discernible reason. Some scenes work really well – Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed A Dream is stunning. The camera holds a tight close up of her face, never moving or cutting away, forcing the viewer to feel every ounce of the raw emotion on screen. Which works great for that song. But when you drag the same technique out again and again, for songs that it doesn’t really work for, it pulls you out of the movie. It got to the stage that I wanted to punch the screen every time there was an extreme close up with the actor on the right of the screen. And then there were the shots that made little sense. It felt like if Hooper didn’t know what to do with a scene, he simply tilted the camera 30 degrees to confound, rather than enhance the performance. Ultimately I found the direction of this film distracting and visually confusing.
Les Misérables is a story about justice. The poor and destitute on the streets yearning for more than what they have been given. Jean Valjean finding himself trapped in a vicious cycle for a poor decision in his youth that was born out of honest motive. Fantine driven to desperate measures because of the unjust actions of others. The young men on the streets of Paris fighting for the rights of the common man. Everyone in this film is searching for justice. The response of Les Misérables is to find justice in self determination. That true freedom and justice comes through the actions of the individual. That only through rejection of the unjust system and tyranny can justice be found. But the reality is that true justice comes not from ourselves with our sinful natures. No, true justice comes through Jesus Christ. The one who will judge fairly. The one who will bring and end to injustice. “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18) The death of sin and injustice that the lowly folk of Les Misérables long for can only come with the return of Christ.
Les Misérables is not a movie for everyone. In the session I attended, a number of people walked out. I’m guessing that this says more about their dislike of musicals than the quality of the movie. In fact, most people I have spoken to have not experienced the same problems with the direction that I did. There are some scenes of sex and violence in this film but they are not glorified and serve to demonstrate the depravity of the time. If you love the music of Les Misérables or just interested in seeing a full blown musical on the big screen, then you really should make a point to check out this movie.