At The Movies-Les Miserables

An artistic triumph

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Rarely has a film been so aptly titled. I felt like I had stumbled into some French nightmare version of one of those interminable Russian novels where everyone suffers horribly only to die in some picturesque but pointless way. True literature brings the suffering of ordinary people to the fore in a way that is both accessible to other ordinary people and done with such verisimilitude that we must suffer along with the characters.  Huzzah. 

The film opens just as the horror of the French Revolution and its attendant ways have ended. This revolution was caused by the unendurable suffering of the French people. After a couple of additional decades the still unendurable suffering of the French people results in the short-lived revolt in Paris. Not much seems to have improved in France in the interval. This is the somber backdrop of the film.

The action is worse. Hugh Jackmsn, in a topnotch effort, plays a man released from 20 years of hard labor, read vile slavery to the state, for petty theft. Russell Crowe, in a brilliant bit of casting, turns in an equally brilliant performance as the stringent and relentless policeman who dogs the freed prisoner for the rest of both their lives. Anne Hathaway manages a brave kind of beauty as the starving, dying mother of Cosette, her young daughter. The adult Cosette is played by Amanda Seyfried, well remembered for “Mama Mia” and the more recent “In Time” with Justin Timberlake.

Other notable cast members, as if this feast was not enough to satisfy, are Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (the mockumentary “Borat.”) They play the utterly corrupt innkeeper couple who briefly care for the little girl, Cosette. Also notable is Englishman Eddie Redmayne who is the adult Cosette’s firebrand boyfriend. 

Everyone must sing as well as act which they do competently or moreso depending on their gifts.

Writer William Nicholson also penned the less emotionally taxing “Gladiator,” also a Russell Crowe vehicle.

Please imagine this stellar cast, along with sets so realistic that you can almost smell the stench of the Parisian slums, and deft directing by Tom Hooper all set to music. There is no dialog, only singing. What a challenge that Hooper met like the champion he is (he also directed “The King’s Speech” in 2010.) “Les Miserables” is an artistic triumph of the first order. The story, by literary giant Victor Hugo, is compelling and terribly tragic. It is told in song to make us remember every scene of relentless Kafkaesque grinding inescapable tragedy. And this is told by a master director using truly remarkable actors — in song. I admit to being engulfed in the tragedy and being brought extravagantly to tears. High art makes you feel emotion. 

“Les Miserables” is so good, I forgive that it is a musical. The PG-13 (graphic poverty and suffering, a child murdered and other sad tidings) film is very long at two hours and 37 minutes.  The producers made this four-saw blade movie with only $65 million. It has garnered $116 million. The film should be profitable. I want it to be profitable. If people do not reward excellence in filmmaking with their box office dollars, we won’t get excellent films and that would be a tragedy.

Stage version is superior

Katie Schouten - Teen reviewer

Set in early 19th-century France, “Les Miserables” tells the story of Jean Valjean, a prisoner who escaped during parole to start on a new life. Based on the Broadway musical, this new rendering of “Les Mis” gives a look at the story from a more ‘up close’ perspective. The characters are all still there, those you love, and those you hate, but the movie focuses on the characters in a slightly different way. For instance, a new song was written for the movie to help the feelings of Jean Valjean as he adopts Cosette. Also, the Thénardiers were given more screen time than they have in the play. It was probably done in the interest of actress Helena Bonham Carter, but also was able to communicate the horrible practices of the two innkeepers.

A question I heard and even asked before the movie was released was, ‘Can these actors sing?’ The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. The only simple thing to say about the vocals is that the performers on the live musical sing better, but that is only to be expected. I felt that the strongest singer was Russell Crowe, playing Javert. Anne Hathaway was also able to pull off the character Fantine. Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, was able to play the role well, if not quite as well as Crowe played his.

The filming was one aspect that made the movie different from the live version of “Les Miserables.” It was rough in places, with quick transitions. At times, it developed an ‘in your face’ sort of filming style, which showed more than the audience wanted to see, especially during the ‘Lovely Ladies’ scene. In other places, the camera didn’t seem to move at all, but stayed on the same person for several minutes at a time. In contrast, the filming was very exciting during Javert’s solos. At those moments, the filming allowed the viewer to be able to be better acquainted with Javert’s struggles as he hunted down Valjean.

My largest complaint was that the movie was not able to capture the end of the musical as well as the live version does. It leaves you with less of an uplifted feeling at the end.

Overall, I was pleased with this new movie version of “Les Miserables.” It was enjoyable enough to keep me occupied for an afternoon. However, it is not the amazing cultural experience that the live musical is. Given the choice between the two of them, I would definitely prefer to see “Les Miserables” on stage, but the movie is still worth the ticket price.

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