Faith & Film: Les Miserables

Twenty-five years after the mega-hit musical opened on Broadway, the movie version of “Les Miserables” has finally opened. Of course, there have been other versions of Victor Hugo’s classic, but this is the first adaptation of the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil to hit the screen.

I’m a big fan of the stage version, having seen it five times, not to mention numerous versions of the 10th and 25th anniversary concert versions, broadcast on PBS. After all this, I was anxious to see the screen version, having seen the trailer numerous times over the last six months.

“Les Miserables” makes the transition to the screen with mixed results. Overall, I am pleased with the film. It’s such a great story, rich in theological themes, with a wonderful score, and all that survives. I think the plot is easier to follow in the film than on stage. I remember feeling a little lost in the plot with so many characters spanning decades. I credit screenwriter William Nicholson with this achievement.

Hugh Jackman is good as Jean Valjean. He gives Valjean a haunted, haggard look. Until the end of the film, in which he is at peace, Valjean always seems to be looking over his shoulder, fearful that his true identity would be discovered. Jackman certainly looks like one who has the physical strength, which he uses for good, but also gives away his identity. Jackman is a veteran of stage musicals, and has a good singing voice, but, unfortunately, does not do justice to Valjean’s big number “Bring Him Home.”

By the time I saw the movie, I’d heard so many bad things about Russell Crowe’s performance as Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert, that I was pleasantly surprised. His Javert is properly menacing. Crowe’s singing voice is not bad, but he can’t carry Javert’s magnificent anthem, “Stars,” nor his final song before his suicide.

For months, Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine has been praised, and rightly so. She has received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her moving performance. Hathaway certainly lets you believe that Fantine has lost everything, even her dignity. Her famous song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” has never been more hauntingly beautiful.

In the large cast, I was also impressed by Samantha Barks as the other doomed lover, Eponine. If Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” breaks your heart early in the movie, Barks’ “On My Own” breaks it again in the second half. Barks seems so much more alive and vibrant than Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) that I wondered why Marius (Eddie Redmayne) would ever choose Cosette over Eponine. Barks’ Eponine wins us over as the woman who knows she will never win the heart of the man she loves, but, nevertheless remains loyal to him till the end. Redmayne takes some getting used to as the freckle-faced young Marius, but he comes through with the haunting “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

The innkeepers’ big number “Master of the House” has always been a big crowd pleaser, offering much needed comic relief in the heavy first act. Unfortunately, this number does not work at all on screen. Maybe it’s too theatrical. It’s also due to the miscasting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in the roles. Because this big number does not work at all (nor do any of the other scenes with Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter), the film seems weighted down. It is devoid of any much-needed comic relief.

The central conflict in “Les Miserables” is one between a theology of grace and forgiveness versus a theology of law. Valjean is a victim of injustice who is blessed and forgiven early in the film by a bishop (in a nice move played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on stage.) The bishop gives Valjean candlesticks which represent that forgiveness. I love the fact that these candlesticks are visible frequently in the film, especially in the final sequence. The grace and forgiveness allow Valjean to change and live an honorable life. The theology of law is expemplified by Javert, who believes that it is adherence to law that saves, and that people do not change. It’s all very Pauline!

If anything works better on film than stage, it has to be the scenes of the student uprising in Paris. On stage, I always had the impression that the entire country was in revolt. On screen, the uprising is put into perspective. The handful of idealistic students with their makeshift barricade on a Paris street seems tragically doomed from the start, no match at all for the powerful army. It makes their doomed effort all the more poignant.

On stage, the musical was aided by its breathtaking staging, featuring a revolving stage, which helped the pacing. The film looks beautiful (receiving Oscar nominations for sets, costumes, and makeup.) But, in an odd way, I kept comparing the scenes to those on stage. With the noted exception of the student uprising, I liked the stage version better.

Much has been made of director Tom Hooper’s (“The King’s Speech”) decision not to employ the common film practice of pre-recording the songs in a studio and have the actors lip-synch them on film. It’s generally an effective technique, although I wonder if Jackman’s “Bring Him Home” would have sounded better if he could have recorded it in the studio.

If not a total success, “Les Miserables” is no doubt a worthy effort, with much to recommend, especially for those who have not seen it on stage. There must be at least a few of those!

Tom Condon, OP