‘I’ ON CULTURE
The millions of people who have seen Les Misérables as a show and loved it will be thrilled to see the epic new movie. If you have not seen it, you might well fall in love with its incredibly strong (certainly for a musical, maybe for any film) story. But you should also keep in mind that it is not only soap opera, but real opera. Just about every line is sung. But, as in opera, the strong feelings present, the deep loves and rigid hates, hold you spellbound. These are real people being shown, not superheroes who we know will win in the end. They suffer, they love, they sacrifice, and they die.
The story, classic Victor Hugo, is packed with plot. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), jailed for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving nephew, is hounded by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) for years. At first a resentful thief, he is caught stealing from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson), who swears he gave him the loot and tells Valjean that he has “bought your soul for God.”
Valjean reforms and becomes the owner of a factory. There he sins by not helping Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a single mother whose salary goes to pay for the upkeep of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) by the corrupt innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), which results in Fantine being forced to sell her hair, some teeth and finally herself. When he finds the almost-dead woman and realizes what he has done, Valjean swears to take care of the child. Even though Javert is after him, he buys the girl from the innkeepers.
The film then jumps nine years, and Valjean and an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) now live in Paris where the Thénardiers, now thieves, recognize Valjean. In the middle of this, young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sees Cosette and finds out from the Thénardier daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) who she is and where she lives.
Marius and Cosette fall in love at first sight, disappointing Eponine, who adores the young man. In the middle of all of this, the students rebel against the government. Marius is in great danger, Valjean saves his life and deliberately allows his nemesis Javert to escape. Eventually, the lovers are reunited and married, and Valjean has found redemption through keeping his promise to Fantine. And every line of that has been sung.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Jackman, the center of it all, has never been better. He sings an incredibly difficult role well, and in this film all the singing was done live, not in a studio. Hathaway is fabulous. She should probably set aside some room on a mantelpiece for an Oscar. Her song, the most famous of a superb score, “I Dreamed a Dream,” can rip your guts out. Cohen and Carter provide needed comedy relief. Crowe’s voice is a bit weak, but his performance as the inspector is very strong. Samantha Barks, a newcomer, is wonderful as the tragic Eponine, and her “On My Own” is lovely.
I admit that I have history with Les Mis. Many years ago, I took my oldest daughter to see the show on Broadway. She wanted to see Phantom of the Opera and we saw it, but this show was a block away and we got tickets for the next day. Both of us were blown away by the far stronger story and score. And then a few years later, it became a first major date with my Maria. By “I Dreamed a Dream” she was grabbing my hand. And we’re together 20 years later. So I admit a bias.
But the story, with its themes of love and salvation, is magnificent. Valjean is punished and pursued for what we would consider a negligible crime, but it is his sin, of allowing bad people to hurt someone else, that drives his life. Many critics have trouble with the religious element within that. But Hugo was a devout man of the 19th century who believed there was a real difference between good and evil. As a result, he wrote of a world that was filled with inequities but also provided a way for people to redeem themselves. Valjean punishes himself for something he has not done but which has horribly damaged someone else, while the state, represented by Javert, is after him for a very minor crime. In the end, Javert realizes his own blindness.
But this story of love, revolution, sin and salvation is very powerful. It may not be for everyone, but there are many people who will be moved and touched. This is a great story about human beings; see it.