- D.A. Carson
Yesterday my family saw the film Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, based on the music and lyrics from the incredibly successful musical, based on the beloved novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. One might think it would be hard not to make a successful film with such material, while on the other hand, when producing a film interpretation of a work adored by millions, how easy it might be to disappoint.
Well, it does not disappoint. This film is a towering achievement. We sat enthralled for the entire 157 minutes of it.
When transitioning a story from the stage to film, some changes, of course, need to be introduced. I've become very familiar with the stage rendition, having seen it twice (once in London and once in Texas) and our kids have listened to the original 1987 Broadway soundtrack seemingly non-stop for the past few weeks. The film takes liberties, shortening some of the songs, adding at least one new song, changing a lyric here and there, and lengthening some songs with a bit more sung dialog. In a stage play, due to the distance of the majority of the crowd from the actors, so much of the plot and emotional development is conveyed through the voices and the set. In a film, closeups of the action and the actors are possible, and there is more information conveyed through the acting than is possible in a stage play. In addition, the visual scope of a film can go far beyond a small stage area and moveable props. As a result, the reliance on voice in this movie is lessened. The singing is still fantastic, but the vocal performances are more variable, more subservient to the action.
The cast of Les Miserables is remarkable. I thought Anne Hathaway put in a very strong performance as Fantine, both in her acting and vocally (Eldest Son wasn't as impressed: he said that while she certainly threw her heart and soul into the part, he could see in her eyes what she was thinking: "Best Supporting Actress. Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actress."). Hugh Jackman is fabulous as Jean Valjean. His is a role with very challenging and wide ranging vocal and emotional requirements and he nails them all. Eddie Redmayne is a very strong Marius, particularly in the last third of the film, and Samantha Barks completely inhabits the role of Eponine, beautifully capturing the sadness, the heroism and self-sacrifice of the character. Other strong performances are turned in by Aaron Tveit as the barricade leader Enjolras - indeed, all the "barricade boys", as my wife calls them, were very good - and young Daniel Huttlestone as the brave street-urchin Gavroche.
Not all the characters are perfectly cast, however. While there is disagreement among my family members, I feel that Russell Crowe is not the best fit for Javert. That role requires a very strong vocal performance and Crowe, while a very fine actor who has, by the way, an amazing voice for speaking-parts, falls a little short as a singer. I also feel that Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thernardiers miss the mark a bit. They are entertaining, certainly, and I think the fault lies less with them than with the way they were directed. They are (if this is possible for the Thernardiers) too over-the-top for my taste.
There are some nice additions to the film as well, some items brought in from the book, such as Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean and Cosette and their escape over the wall of a convent following her liberation from the Thernardiers. In addition, as a very nice touch, there is the casting of Colm Wilkinson in the role of the Bishop. Wilkinson was the original Jean Valjean in the stage play.
A friend of mine remarked, after seeing the film, that it was more of a sermon than a movie. And he meant that in a good way, meaning almost the exact opposite of what critics mean when they call a film "preachy". Like a good sermon, my friend continued, this film gives you a lot to think about, to dwell upon. And it does. Les Miserables is a masterful study of grace versus law, sacrifice and selflessness versus greed and power, and ultimately, redemption. As the multitudes sing in the masterful final scene of the film:
do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare;
they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes.
I highly recommend Les Miserables. 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.