Sunday, December 23, 2012


Les Misérables
December 25, 2012 (United States)
160 min
United Kingdom (English)

Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer (Based on the novel by Victor Hugo)

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) holding young Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

"Les Misérables" is a feat of adaptation and ambition. The shoulders on which it stands and the landmark production of its own make this one of the best musicals and one of the best films in years. 


Chances are that most crowds who flock to theaters this Christmas to behold "Les Misérables" will be fans of the renowned musical, which celebrated its 25th anniversary recently in 2010. When I saw it last week I did not fit into this camp. Growing up in a home with a family that loved the musical I heard the songs every so often, but being the youngest I was removed from a lot of their art consumption. I had not heard the musical in its entirety nor did I know the story it was telling. 

This year I started reading Victor Hugo's literary classic, not light reading as many of you may know. According to so many close and influential people in my life, it is the greatest book that they've ever read and so I could not ignore it. I had to read it. I'm currently halfway through the massive text and I've already had spirited conversations with my father about how incredible it is, Waterloo and all. I've no doubt that when I'm finished with it I will hold it in equal esteem. "The Hobbit" may remain my favorite book of all time, but "Les Mis" may be the greatestWhat a blessed year where cinematic adaptations of each are upon us! Having seen both last week I can happily report that they rose above my high (though after significant critic grapeshot, moderate) expectations, especially "Les Mis."

And so I went into "Les Mis" with some passing familiarity of the songs involved. The melodies and certain lyrics never leave you, do they? The chill-inducing trailer brought a lot of the numbers back and offered glimpses of what the film would be like, a surprising follow-up to Tom Hooper's exceptional "The King's Speech." With the novel providing me a foundation of the first half of this decade-bridging epic, a familiarity of the principal characters involved and more than I would ever need to know about Paris circa early 19th-Century, the stage was more than set for me. However, I did not know the outcome and was able to be surprised by the film's second half. Well, that was a side note in the spirit of Hugo, but I thought it be worth noting on what I brought into the theater when I saw "Les Mis." That is always an important factor but can be even more decisive when dealing with adaptations.


Victor Hugo's novel is the story of a man severely punished for a petty crime and hating the world for it. It is easy to adopt this perception when you have never met someone who seems to care, but one caring person can change your life. This is a pattern we see throughout the story, which has been adapted into plays, musicals and films before, but never has there been a film adapted from the musical. In many ways it is acquiring the best of several worlds: the powerful music that has been stirring the hearts of millions for years now, delving back into the mine of details that Hugo painted with his words 150 years ago, and using the storytelling tools of cinema for lasting measure.

Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, the freshly paroled ex-convict with a troubled past and an unknown future. He is the through-line for the narrative that spans nearly 20 years in and around Paris, starting in 1815. His efforts to change are constantly thwarted by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who sincerely believes that once a criminal, always a criminal, especially one as hardend as Prisoner #24601. What makes this account so relatable and debatable is that these characters are neither black or white. Protagonist and antagonist alike have their reasonings and justifications in store, even if their moralities sometimes bend in the wind. That's not to say there aren't some purely good and then some wickedly evil characters abounding around.

I stress this because this story, especially as adapted into a musical, is very much a cast of distinct characters. Jean Valjean is at the head, but it is an ensemble piece to be sure. Anne Hathaway plays Fantine, but for those unfamiliar with the production her short amount of screen time will surprise, especially as she was billed second only to Jackman. In her few numbers she conveys a desperate individual who has tasted loss and lost the taste of hope. Hers is one of the best performances of the year, a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress for my money; Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" will be legendary. You do not need to mark my words, the feeling is unanimous.

Russell Crowe plays Inspector Javert... and actually sings!

We already knew Jackman and Hathaway could sing, but Russell Crowe? That was a surprise to me from the very first trailer. And yes, correct me if I'm wrong, this is the first time that Crowe has ever attempted to sing. I mean, this is Maximus we're talking about here! He's a great Javert if not a great singer, but he completely commits to the performance and that's what sells it in the end. Besides, we're not just dealing with singing abilities this time (this ain't The Voice), for a cinematic adaptation acting becomes a key ingredient. The same goes for everyone involved. They might not all be Broadway material (though I'm sure I won't be alone in preferring Eddie Redmayne to Nick Jonas as Marius...), but they can sing and can act. This film consistently amazed me at how doubly talented the individuals involved were.

One of the key features about this film that has been widely advertised is that they recorded the music live on set. This is virtually unheard of in movie musicals, Hollywood or otherwise. This isn't just a gimmick, but an actual game-changer. It really makes all the difference in the world. The songs breathe like nothing I've ever seen. Acting (there's that word again) takes a front seat beside the vocals and can change accordingly to the emotions of the moment. Director Tom Hooper wanted the sets to have an affect on the cast and crew, from uncomfortable temperatures to unwanted smells (I watched Hathaway on Ellen describing the raw fish around). Due to these conditions there is a naturalism involved even if musicals themselves are far from natural.

The solo numbers often take place in uninterrupted shots (largely due to the uniqueness of each separate take). It gives the project a degree of guerilla filmmaking, which I was blown away by. From Jean Valjean's opening Soliloquy, where he is singing his repentance in forgotten chapel, I was riveted as the versatile camera moved back and forth with Jackman in his kneeling and his pacing. Do see this film in a theater where their faces can be forty feet tall. The galaxies of human faces (from those miserable to those deplorable and to those joyful) are yours to explore. I did not know this film would be as intimate as it was. We are occasionally treated to a grandiose picture of the setting we are in, like in the breath-taking opening shot where a mighty ship is pulled ashore, but mostly we are in close-up with the souls at stake. Factor in the live and vibrant singing and the result is raw and resonant.

"Les Misérables" sews anger, sorrow, and enmity across threads of sacrifice, forgiveness, and brotherhood. It is ultimately about those who care and love another and that keeps its heart beating strong. The novel was unabashedly spiritual in its "matter of fact" mentions of God above. This spirit is alive and well in this film. Whether you partake of this creed or not I should think the message of compassion could ease anyone's mind. Also, it skips across genres you could list like a smooth stone over a glassy lake. There's a reason this story is standing against time and proving itself to viewers of all ages.

I have since caught up with the stage musical (the 25th Anniversary to be exact). I cannot imagine many others will experience these in this same order. I am curious what others who have appreciated the musical for years will think of this film. Some songs are in different orders, there's additions between the numbers to further the narrative and it even includes a new song while also cutting easily the worst one from the stage musical ("Dog Eat Dog"). My hope is they will love what they have always loved and esteem the improvements (yes, I really consider them to be such). Many of the aspects I have been praising about this "Les Misérables" are purely cinematic. There are things that you can only do in the movies and I believe this team accomplished what they set out to create.

The Thénardiers and their "sweet" Cosette.

Before I close I would like to make mention of a couple numbers in particular: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (the two previously sang onscreen in Tim Burton's "Sweeny Todd") are a nastily entertaining duo playing the Thénardiers, the "worst" innkeepers in any town. "Master of the House" feels like it is from a jarringly different musical, as it always has, but thinking back on it brings much mirth. Samantha Banks plays Éponine (as she did in the 25th Anniversary). Her rendition of "On My Own" in the rain is a show-stopper. As amazing as Hathaway is, it boggles my mind of the common criticism that the film's second half flounders in comparison to the first. Daniel Huttlestone plays the street urchin Gavroche. I didn't want to take a swing at him like I did the snot-nosed kid on the stage and I much prefer the greater impact he has in the film.

Not only is "Les Misérables" the best film I've seen this year, it's one of the best musicals I have seen in ages and will undoubtedly blaze a trail for a new lineup of musical adaptations to the silver screen. This particular adaptation of "Les Misérables" is a true cinematic treasure, like other versions of the tale it is a classic of our day and age and will be cherished by many for generations to come.


CONTENT: some sexuality, sexual dialogue, language and brief bloody violence

Update 12/29/12


Tara said...

A great review! I think you expressed your feelings about the show very well and made me even more excited to see it. I had never heard that the actors were surrounded by uncomfortable temperatures and smells. That's crazy! And, I'm sure, it makes it that much more real and impressive. So excited to see it this week!!!

Galyn said...

Although some aspects of the play (and I will assume the movie) are uncomfortable for me to view/hear, I cannot dismiss it because of the redemptive message it gives overall. I enjoyed your review and I'm glad you have finally partaken of the musical and book that your other family members have been talking about for years. Let me know when you finish the book. I need to set that goal as well.

Dan O. said...

This has the best ensemble of 2012, a classic story for the ages, and music that's damn near perfect. Hathaway shines brightest. Good review J.S.

J.S. Lewis said...

Tara, I was happy to hear it lived up to you BIG expectations.

Galyn, I cannot recommend the book enough.

Dan, agreed on all points.

Thanks for reading everybody!