“This never-ending road to Calvary….” (Thoughts on Les Miserables)

It all comes back to Star Wars, doesn’t it? Even Les Miserables.

What am I talking about? Well, back when The Phantom Menace came out, and initial reaction was somewhat mixed (before ossifying into outright hatred), I remember an article on some site – I think it was AICN – in which the writer said something I found fascinating. Paraphrasing, it went roughly like this:

I’ve made Episode I in my head many, many times since 1983. Now I’ve had to see the real thing twice, once just to get the one I’ve been making in my head for sixteen years out of the way so I can come to grips with the real one that George Lucas made.

I understood the sentiment, but I never made Episode I in my head – or any other Star Wars movie, for that matter. (What I did, in fanfic, was remake the original trilogy entirely, but that’s a tale for another time.) But the movie I have made in my head many, many times over the better part of two decades?

Les Miserables.

And I mean, I’ve made that movie in my head. All the way down to various visuals. Bear with me here a moment. I’ve seen the film tied together around a single location: a bridge over the Seine. We’d first see that bridge when Jean Valjean is conflicted over his release after he stole the silver. We’d see it again when Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream”. And again when Javert sings “Stars”, and again when Eponine sings “On My Own”. And at the end of the film, the entire cast would gather on that bridge, after Valjean’s passing. The bridge would be a visual motif tying the entire thing together.

(I know, this would require a bit of license, given that much of the first half of the story doesn’t take place in Paris. Like I said, bear with me.)

I don’t know why I’ve so vividly imagined Les Mis in my head over the years, because I very rarely do that with music. I’m never one to visualize certain scenes or mental images when listening to music, even if the composer intends me to do so, as is often the case with Berlioz. I generally belief, along with Leonard Bernstein, that music is inherently abstract, and that a composer can call his piece “The River” all he wants, but that doesn’t make the piece an actual depiction of a river. This was driven home once in grade school when a music teacher handed everyone a sheet of paper and some crayons and played a piece of music, telling us to draw what we heard in the music. Not one of us drew what the composer said was in the music.

So why did I have such strong visualizations of Les Mis? I have no idea, and I must answer blandly with something along the lines of “I am large; I contain multitudes.” But anyway, now along comes the real movie version of Les Mis. No, it doesn’t match up to my visualizations at all, and there were times when I thought, “No, that’s not the way it’s supposed to look!” But those moments were few and far between, and there were moments when it looked right to me, anyway.

Ultimately, Les Mis the movie seems to be fairly polarizing. I’ve heard basically two categories of responses to this film: “Oh my God thank the Lord that’s over and I never hafta watch it again”, and “Oh my God that movie was a religious experience I can’t wait to watch it again”. And the reactions, at least in my small and not-randomized sample, doesn’t seem to directly correlate in any real way with people who never saw the stage show and people who have.

So what did I think? Well…my reaction isn’t entirely positive, but it’s a lot closer to the latter reaction than the former. I did love the film, but not unreservedly. And my reservations aren’t entirely because the film doesn’t map out exactly with what I made in my head.

Story-wise, the Les Mis film is pretty much exactly the stage show that I saw last year. A few songs have been shortened or altered slightly, but in general, there’s nothing significant missing from the film that happened in the show. Thus, any difficulties in the story are inherent in the show itself, and in its nature: the show distills an immense novel down to a single night’s entertainment, and it does it mostly with music. (I’m reading the novel right now, as it happens. I’m taking my sweet time with it, doling it out to myself at a rate of about 10-15 pages a day. At that rate, I should be able to get through it in about three months. I’ve been at it for a few weeks already.)

From a story standpoint, then, the main problem is the same as the show’s: not enough backstory can be established, particularly in the second half, once our young revolutionaries show up. It’s hard to feel any particularly great emotional involvement in that particular storyline, because the film just can’t go into any great depth about what these students are fighting for and what the source of the revolutionary fervor happens to be. Now, I’m not even close to that point in the book yet, so I can’t be sure if Victor Hugo suffers the same problem, but on the basis of what I’ve read thus far, I rather doubt it. Hugo’s problem seems to be that he never met a chunk of backstory he didn’t love and go on about at length. Not the problem in the movie.

So, that being the case, what are we to make of that whole part of the film and the stage play? The idea seems to be to take Jean Valjean and Javert and put their respective moral centers in the middle of yet another set of moral choices, that of revolution. This can get a bit lost in the shuffle as the melodrama, wonderfully musical as it is, cranks on and on. But again, short of reworking the entire show, I’m not sure how the filmmakers could have really solved the structural problem of the story’s second half. I do think that the film makes two musical choices that don’t help matters, though.

First is a simple one: the wonderful song “Drink With Me” is greatly shortened in the movie. In the show, it’s a gorgeous song of men’s chorus, the young revolutionaries, singing sadly during the night after their first clash with the Paris military. The die is cast, and now they know that it’s for real: at this point real prices have been paid, and the song in its complete version plays as a serene acceptance that no matter what happens now, these young men will never again be simple lads wiling away the time with wine and women. There’s a fatalism to the complete song that’s sadly absent here as the movie only gives us one or two verses.

Second is more problematic. I think I know why Tom Hooper and the producers did it, but it still seems to me a pretty big error. In the film, we don’t hear the show’s singular anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing”, until after what is the huge show-stopping number in the stage show, “One Day More”. And “One Day More” can be emotionally overwhelming – just listen to it (starting at 1:15) in the famed tenth anniversary concert performance of the show’s score. The problem? For one thing, “Do You Hear…” is what really establishes the revolutionaries in the story, even moreso than “Red and Black” (which immediately precedes “Do You Hear…” in the show). It’s the type of stirring melody that we haven’t heard to that point in the show, and when it comes, it really signifies that something’s coming, that as they say these days, shit’s about to go down. “Do You Hear…” conveys a sense of inevitability to what’s about to transpire, and the tune overhangs everything afterwards.

But in the movie, “Do You Hear…” is moved to after “One Day More”, which I found extremely jarring, because “One Day More” derives much of its astonishing effect from being a literal reprise of just about all the melodies of the entire first half of the show. “Who Am I?”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Master of the House”, and “Do You Hear…” – they’re all there, contained within “One Day More”. But in the film, you haven’t heard “Do You Hear…” yet. Instead, you hear it immediately afterwards, when the revolutionaries crash the funeral of the General. What the show does right after “One Day More” is more subtle, because in the show, the next thing we hear is Eponine and “On My Own”. Both acts feature, very early on, a woman singing of heartbreak and unrequited love – Fantine in Act I, and Eponine in Act II. The film messes with the structure a bit, and it doesn’t entirely work.

Neither, it pains me to say, do some of the film’s visual choices. Tom Hooper seems to have set out to make a movie of beautiful squalor, or squalorous beauty, or something like that. There’s a disjointed sense to the film’s visual approach that I found hard to put my finger on, until late in the film, when Valjean carries Marius through the sewers. When they emerge, they are covered literally head to toe with the filth of those sewers, and it was hard for me not to think, “My God, was that really necessary?” And there it was: there are times when it’s clear that Hooper is trying for beautiful effects, because he gets them when he wants to. But then there are other times when he feels the need to dial up the visual ugliness, with washed-out colors, with lingering shots on corpses, with Valjean and Marius completely encased in more shit than Andy Dufresne did, for basically doing the same thing.

I’m of similarly mixed mind on Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. Not because of anything she did, because I think she was basically amazing throughout. But even so, as gut-wrenching as her “I Dreamed a Dream” is, I can’t help wondering how necessary that was – the single take, the broken sobbing, the rest of it. Again, the concert performance of the show is key, because there, they can’t do a lot of stage trickery, so they just let the song speak for itself. For my money, Ruthie Henshall sells Fantine’s soul-crushing heartbreak every bit as well as Hathaway did. But here, I’m quibbling with a stylistic choice, and not so much with the song in question, but with an overall approach of ratcheting up the ugliness at times, which seemed rather unnecessary. Again, I’m not done with the book, but it seems to me that a theme of Les Miserables is the presence of beauty in the world that many can never touch or know.

All this sounds like I’m ripping the movie, but I don’t think I am. There’s much to love in it, because I really did enjoy it immensely, and I’ll be thankful to have it in my DVD collection for when I need a fix. For one thing, aside from the few musical alterations I mention (and the omission of Eponine from Valjean’s death scene, which struck me as quite wrong), the songs are for the most part given room to be the songs they are. That’s important, because in a movie like this, the music is what’s prime – nothing works if the music doesn’t work. And it does.

I had zero misgivings about the cast. Like many Les Mis lovers, the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert struck me as potentially problematic, not because of his appearance, but because he simply isn’t blessed with a great musical voice. And when your mental template for Javert is the great Philip Quast, well…yeah, good luck there, Russell. But Crowe did very well, I think, precisely because he doesn’t have a great voice. This makes sense to me because Javert is a man of virtually no happy touches in his life, no vices, no room to enjoy anything whatsoever. I have no trouble at all with the fact that his singing is distinctively unmusical, because Javert’s singing stands at odds with his role in the story, doesn’t it? Plus, Crowe’s singing voice plays in well with the way he plays Javert in the first place: his Javert is a man of weariness, a man who has seized on his obsession with upholding the law as the only way he can make sense of a world in which no matter how righteously he pursues his obsessions, he can never make the world into ‘paradise’. Humans have fallen too far, and Javert knows it – but he can’t ever say it. Crowe captures this internal strife of Javert’s perfectly: there is always a hint of tired confusion lurking in his eyes, and we know, almost immediately upon meeting him, that suicide is likely the only way he’ll ever reconcile the world with his place in it.

Hugh Jackman’s Valjean is likewise brilliant, and the film would fail utterly without him. I don’t think that the production decision to sing live on stage always served Jackman’s voice to the highest degree, but that is, again, a quibble. Jackman captures Valjean’s internal goodness as perfectly as Crowe captures Javert’s inability to live in the real world, and I loved Jackman’s voice. His Valjean is more of a tenor than usual, but that’s no matter. He completely convinces me of Valjean’s pain, of his moral certitude once he is set on the right course by a compassionate priest, and of the seriousness with which he holds the vow he made to Fantine on the night she died. Best of all, Jackman’s Valjean always seems to be thinking. He’s not just going through the motions of always doing what is moral; Jackman shows us that Valjean has to work at it, even if the music and script don’t always make that internal struggle entirely clear. (Victor Hugo spends entire chapters describing Valjean thinking about his moral choices.)

In all honesty, I can’t think of a wrong note in the cast. Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette is…well, she’s just kind of there, but I don’t think that Seyfried can possibly be blamed for that, as Cosette is just…well, there’s not much there there, with Cosette. She’s easily the weakest link in the stage show, dramatically speaking, and the film can’t really solve that difficulty, either. Cosette is just there to be loved, either protectively (Valjean), or unattainably (Fantine), or romantically (Marius). Eponine is far better drawn as a character in her short time on stage, but she’d better be, because her story is the tragic one.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers? That was, for me, utterly perfect casting. Of all the numbers in the film, “Master of the House” is closest to that movie I’ve made in my mind over the years – my “Castle in the Clouds”, so to speak. The Thenardiers are disgusting individuals, the ones who steal the coins from the dead man’s eyes, so to speak. And the way they keep popping up is disconcerting, as if the very world is constantly trying to drag back down those who would rise above it. Which, when you think about it, is really true, isn’t it?

The best person in the cast is very likely Samantha Barks as Eponine, who makes the absolute most of the relatively short time she’s around. Her emotions are raw and we feel them with her, and Barks does something wonderful in the way she allows Eponine’s love for Marius to show only when he’s not looking (until the very end). It’s kind of a shame that Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” seems to be shaping up as the film’s musical highlight, because Barks’s “On My Own” is amazing. But then, it’s Eponine’s constant fate, isn’t it, to stay in the shadows of someone else?

So no, Les Miserables is not a perfect movie. And it won’t win over anyone who didn’t like the stage show. Nor, I think, will anyone who sees this movie, wonders what the fuss is, and then goes to the stage show find that experience terribly more satisfying. This isn’t my Les Mis, but it is Les Mis. Warts and all, maybe more warts than I would have liked.

Put it this way: After writing this review, all I can think is…I want to go see it again. As soon as humanly possible. “One more day…another day, another destiny….”

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One Response to “This never-ending road to Calvary….” (Thoughts on Les Miserables)

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I agree with some of your points; Banks, and Crowe, especially. Ultimately, though, my difficulty was with Jackman, who can sing, but it all felt high in the range, so it exhausted me. and since he sings a LOT, so did the movie.
    On the other hand, I had never seen a production of Les Mis ever; that will be rectified on May 2, BTW.

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