Les Miserables (2012)
I cried during Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen filmed beautifully in a single shot, uncut, like in musicals of old, with a close-up on her face, her distraught face, singing live. The story of Fantine may be the most miserable part of “Les Misérables,” and Anne Hathaway breaks your heart in the telling. It’s the pinnacle of the movie, really, and the most representative moment of its themes, and it comes too early. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is full of anger and intensity, then guilt and fear, and he’s certainly beaten down by life, particularly in the beginning; but he’s not beaten down the way Fantine is beaten down. She loses her job, her child, her place, her hair, her teeth, her virtue and finally her life. She is the true symbol of les misérables. When you have nothing, the world still keeps taking what’s left.
That’s the problem I had with all the talk of revolution and “the people” in the second half of the film. Sure, the authority figure, Javert (Russell Crowe), is an unsympathetic, bootstraps type, who expects, and maybe even hopes for, recidivism out of every convict, since it reaffirms his narrow worldview. But the worst things that happen to Fantine and Jean Valjean result from the actions of other people. No wonder they don’t rise up on cue. They’re too busy pulling teeth from the poor and deflowering the destitute. Do I hear the people sing? Yes, and it’s not pretty.
“Les Misérables” is full of such mixed messages. Jean Valjean, after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, can’t get on his feet, and, despite his massive strength, he’s beaten down and resorts to stealing again. He’s taken in by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), fed, kept warm, and he responds by stealing silver. Of course he’s caught and brought back. But the Bishop lies for him. He says he gave him the silver. The Monsignor adds that in his haste Jean Valjean forgot the silver candlestick holders. Please take them, he says, and make a new life.
Jean Valjean does. The next time we see him, nine years later, he’s successful, a man of the world, respected, a mayor of a small town even. But what is he really? He’s the owner of a sweat shop that employs a foreman who sexually abuses his female employees and allows poor Fantine to be tossed out into the street. Surely not what the Bishop, let alone God, had in mind.
Love love love, money money money
Victor Hugo’s story is a bit of a jumble this way. It’s 19th-century storytelling. It sprawls. It contains an eight-year jump and a nine-year jump. The first third of the story belongs to Jean Valjean (one of the great names in literature), and then increasingly to others: Fantine for a time, then her daughter, Cosette, who becomes ward of Jean Valjean, and then to the revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt), particularly the former, who becomes Cosette’s lover and eventually her husband. It starts out about the poor, becomes a tale of would-be revolution and sacrifice, and turns into a story about love and marrying up. It gives the people, which is us, what we want: mixed messages.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel. I’ve seen two film versions of the novel, both French: the classic version from 1934 starring Harry Baur; and a 1995 version starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and set during the first half of the 20th century. I’ve only seen parts of the musical. My nephew Jordy, then 9, was in an award-winning version put on by Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and I saw parts of the DVD of that show.
In other words, I’m not as steeped in the source material as some and I’ll leave it to them to grade Tom Hooper more eruditely for his version. But overall I was impressed. Hooper kept the story moving, gave us sweeping shots, overhead shots, many close-ups. There’s criticism for the close-ups, but why? It’s the human face. As John Ford said, it’s the most interesting thing that can be photographed.
Best of all, Hooper had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback, and that, to me, has made all the difference. There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie.
There’s been criticism of Crowe’s singing but I thought he was a perfect Javert: stolid, thick, relentless. If his numbers were stiff, well, Javert is stiff. Crowe’s major failing, for me, was in the final number, the suicide number, where you want greater emotion. You want to feel the reason he jumps. You don’t.
Really, all the actors impressed. Aaron Tvelt feels like he could be a budding star. Ditto Samantha Banks, owner of the world’s tiniest waist, as Éponine, the poor girl who loves the rich boy, Marius, but loses him to the would-be rich girl, the cosseted Cosette. In a smaller role, just a few lines, George Blagden as Grantaire impressed.
Meanwhile, post-Fantine, Jean Valjean keeps doing the right thing. Another man is being tried as Jean Valjean? He admits his subterfuge and saves the man. Fantine has a child? He cares for her, keeps her from harm, and away from Thénardier and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). When he learns of the love between Cosette and Marius, he storms the barricades to save Marius. There, he also saves his enemy, Javert, then pulls Marius through the muck of the sewers of Paris to safety, only to be faced with Javert again. But he refuses to bend. He walks away. Unable to kill, Javert is left to kill himself for his true crime: lack of sympathy.
Valjean keeps doing the right thing, in other words, he keeps putting others before himself, and for his trouble he dies aged and alone. No, wait! Cosette and Marius show up on their wedding day. They’ve found him, and greet him with tears and joy and gratitude, and he is able to bask in this warmth at the moment of his death, where, in the afterlife, he is greeted by Fantine, cleaned up and happy. And among the living, as the music rises, we return to the barricades, and the waving flags, and the red and the black, as if this, revolution, were the lesson of Jean Valjean’s life. But it’s not. It’s not even close.
The lesson of Jean Valjean’s life is the lesson of Jesus: do the right thing and get crucified. The rest (resurrection, basking in Cosette’s warmth) is just prettying up around this story.
Sorry to be a pain in the ass. “Les Misérables” is worth seeing. It has moments of incredible power. I enjoyed it for most of its 158-minute runtime. Musicals are worth making. Please star Anne Hathaway in the next one, please.
December 27, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard