If you’ve been following everything Les Mis for the past two months like I have, or even if you haven’t, you may have realized that this film has been beaten up pretty badly by the critics. I mean, really dragged through the mud so much that it’s come to resemble Jean Valjean covered in slop from the sewer. The critical reception has been that bad. And for the life of me, I have no idea why. I went in with great expectations that had been building up like that damn barricade for months and I was not let down. I fought off the cynicism with all my might and powered through until I was sitting in front of this damn musical that somehow managed to capture my soul and dig in deep like I was a musical theater fanatic or something (I’m not).
But before I go on, I just feel the need to address the common beef some have with Les Mis. It’s mainly Hooper’s filmmaking choices and then a whole bunch of melodrama – basically, they have a problem with Les Mis being Les Mis and not pretending to be something else. The good news? Twitter response from industry people and not critics has been wildly positive, my main man Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film Experience loves it, everyone I’ve encountered outside of the internet seems to be gaga for it, and oh…yeah, it rocked dat Christmas Day box office.
In other words, the mass reception vs. the critical reception has never been this polar opposite as far as I can recall. But I’ll stop there and get on with it, Nathaniel has a good little rant about it being the critical punching bag for no good reason. “If the emotions weren’t big, why would anyone be singing?” Hallelujah!
Okay, so now I’m going to try really really hard to summarize the plot section by section so I can get on to the cool stuff and not be bogged down with explaining thangs throughout. Oh, and imma add some historical context up in hurrr to, because I’m furious that anyone still thinks this is about the French Revolution.
In 1815, after the fall of Napolean and the First French Empire, the powers of Europe forcefully placed Louis XVIII back on the throne. Jean Valjean, a convict for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child, has made his parole. However, being labeled a dangerous man, his parole papers pretty much guarantee he be destitute for the rest of his life. Finally, a kind-hearted bishop takes Valjean in for the night, but Valjean steals silver and takes off. When he is caught, the Bishop claims he gave him the silver, and tells him to use it to become an honest man.
The film opens with a swell of music and sweeping visuals, and doesn’t waste any time jumping into the singing. Valjean and Javert (played divisively by Russell Crowe) sing-speak to each other and anyone who expected some Chicago better get used to it fast. Also the main antagonism of the entire film is established. Then Valjean takes off and travels, looking for work, is beat up and it’s both beautiful and sad. But the truly stunning part of the opening prologue begins when the original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, shows up as the Bishop. He is immediately a warm hearth in contrast to the cold and hardened world we’ve surveyed so far. He is so kind in fact, that it’s shocking when Valjean runs off the with his silver. And it appears it was shocking to himself as well. Parried with kindness and love he hasn’t known in perhaps his entire life, Valjean’s Soliloquy in the church is a resounding number filled with warring, ripping, unbridled emotions.
It is then that you realize this is no ordinary musical. What we see in Hugh Jackman’s Soliloquy is not a pretty, smooth and well executed musical number, but rather the story, the meat of it all being told through song. This is where the acting in this film happens, and it is impossible to gloss over the lyrics of the song in favor of finding the melody pretty. Hooper and Jackman make you listen and make you feel every ambivalent moment of Valjean’s inner struggle. Then he bursts outside, tears up his parole papers and the music of the orchestra booms and swells until it engulfs you.
Now, jumping ahead to 1823, Valjean is living under a pseudonym and has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of a small town. I guess everything’s been quite dandy, but shit gets real as Javert trots into town and one of Valjean’s factory workers is fired after the other women discover a letter that she’s sending money to an illegitimate child. While Valjean sweats over Javert’s suspicions, Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway, must resort to selling her hair, teeth and body so she can send money to the innkeepers who keep her daughter, Cosette as a ward. It’s odd, because this descent into hell snowballs quickly and we barely even know Fantine. But such is the nature of the play I suppose, and when Anne Hathaway begins “I Dreamed a Dream” it really doesn’t matter.
She’s reflecting upon the story of her life, and we learn all we need to through her song. Hooper keeps the entire ballad to a tight, one shot close up and simply lets her go. It was a beautiful choice, and as the song reaches crescendo the rough, raw quality of her voice rips into you and yet she manages to carry a verse from hoarse almost-yelling into a gorgeous belting note. I know nothing of singing, but I’d bet this is pretty damn hard to do. I truly truly have never seen anything like this before. It’s indescribable. If only for this number, I implore you to see this movie.
Meanwhile, Valjean, who must have a leftover empathy for the disenfranchised, finds Fantine as she’s about to be arrested and intercedes. Valjean really really loves foiling Javert at every turn it seems. When you think back at how many times Javert is just trying to do his job and Valjean is all “Javert just gimme like 3 seconds and let me do this one superhero thing and I’ll brb I prooooomise” it’s rather hilarious. But I digress. Fantine is dying, Valjean wars with himself again, Javert figures out Valjean really is Valjean, but he has other things to do like go get Fantine’s daughter Cosette and adopt her and love her forever.
It is here that I struggle most with Tom Hooper’s choices in the film, however. Despite excellent musical numbers peppered throughout, I struggled watching both Lovely Ladies and Master of the House. In both musical numbers, the tone of the orchestra and lyrics shift considerably to give an almost obtuse, carnival like feel. And while this shift in tone may work on stage, it does not work on film. The change in tone is jarring and feels entirely disconnected from the rest of the film. Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen turn in wonderful performances as the Thenardiers and give us much needed comedic relief, but Hooper’s decision to doll them up like circus freaks and take the production to a grotesque extreme was a severe miscalculation. Their environment and existences felt cartoonish, overly flamboyant and wildly misplaced. If Hooper had toned down the absurdity, the comic relief could still have existed and felt more natural.
In fact, I think it vastly misreads the entire message of Victor Hugo’s novel that he made the prostitutes and the Thenardiers so unreal. For even the swindling, conning Thenardiers are victims of society just as Valjean and Fantine are. This cinematic misreading puts a damper on the second part, but maybe one day I’ll get over it. Actually, I loved Valjean’s overall bemused reaction to the Thenardiers when he comes to get Cosette. It’s literally a mirror of myself watching them in this movie.
By the way, for some reason I decided inside I am Valjean’s spirit in every way. Weird.
Valjean escapes Javert with Cosette and we once again fast forward, this time to Paris, 1832. Two years after the July Revolution, the shuffling of French monarchs is still going on, while France’s lower classes are ravaged by famine, poverty and illness. Here we find young (and hot) revolutionaries leading the unrest in the city lead by the charismatic Enjorlas (played by Broadway star Aaron Tveit) and the born-rich Marius (Eddie Redmayne!).
Paris is mighty small because all of our main players bump into one another in a square where the Thenardiers are running a con, Valjean and a grown up Cosette are meandering, Marius spots Cosette and Eponine, the Thenardier’s daughter, is pained. Oh and Javert turns up again. Marius and Cosette fall instantly in love, and the final section of the film stands to test such pure and innocent love as revolution, Javert and generally all things bad loom in the air.
Curiously enough, Valjean takes a backseat here, while Marius drives the story. It’s fitting, as a new generation blooms and a new man appears in Cosette’s life. One again driven by that pesky dueling inner-outer (because of singing monologue, Valjean grieves to lose Cosette and face his own old age, but soon finds honor and devotion in the young Marius and does everything he can do save him for Cosette.
A lot goes on, and instead of boring all twelve of you who read this with figuring out how to summarize this epic monstrosity of a movie/opera/musical I’ll just highlight the performances and musical numbers that really stand out. See, this review is unimaginably long and messy unlike my super taut Zero Dark Thirty review. May the review match the film?
Anywway, I can’t say enough good things about Eddie Redmayne as Marius. An untrained singer before he snagged the role (dayummm), his voice is astonishing, and he injects nuances layers of depth to a character that is really extremely self involved, lamenting over his love for Cosette even as he fights a doomed student revolution. His Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is a showstopping number if I ever saw one.
On either side of the Marius love triangle is the trilling Cosette, played dynamically by Amanda Seyfried. Her thankless character comes alive in her interactions with Valjean and she manages to make a one of history’s most black and white love triangles a little more grey. Samantha Barks as Eponine does her part beautifully as well. Hopelessly in love with Marius, she shines as a great young woman whom no one notices except the audience. Though the love triangle feels rather gratuitous while the barricade boys are trying to like better the country and all, the actors make it seem less frivolous than it really is.
The biggest emotional weight of the second half lies with the lateral conflicts of all the characters at the dawn of a coming revolution that is a desperate cry for change. One Day More is easily one of the best sequences in the film, and is the most powerful ensemble by far. A tough feat to do on film where all of the contributing singers are in different settings, Hooper handles it very very well. I almost forgive him for the Thenardiers. But not quite, they still bother me throughout the film until the very end. (Though their final scene is probably their best and least irritating).
While Enjorlas and Gavroche tug on our revolutionary heartstrings, Valjean and Javert continue their lifelong duel. When Javert is captured by the revolutionaries as a spy, Valjean asks to kill him but lets him go instead. Javert, whose world view is so rigid that he only understands Valjean’s right to revenge and cannot comprehend why his nemesis would show him mercy, takes his own life. His final ballad is a culmination of everything he has sung before, and the main antagonist somehow transforms into another victim of an unforgiving society. It’s poignant and sad and tragic, and I personally believe that Russell Crowe pulled it off beautifully and with restrained grace. I do not get the hate, for real guys. Can someone explain it to me? I just don’t see it. Sure, his voice got a little nasally when he hit his high notes but I found his voice strong, lovely, surprising and his acting choices true to Javert’s character.
Another lost point for Tom Hooper for having Javert’s body crunch on a dam in the river instead of just falling to the Seine. It was unnecessarily campy and took the viewer out of the emotions of his parting song.
Well, when all is said and done, the poor revolutionaries were idealist dreamers who couldn’t drum up widespread support, and died in vain and really – for nothing. And though Valjean saved Marius and he and Cosette are reunited, their reunion in the aftermath feels strangely wrong. They so easily integrate themselves into the high society of Paris that I wonder if we’re truly supposed to be happy for them. See, I’m in the minority in that I really did feel the fervent, desperate clamoring of love between them, even if suddenly and seemingly superficial, and didn’t quite like that the disenfranchised people Marius fought for in his revolution could be so easily cast aside. Though I suppose that was the point of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables – he realized the meaninglessness of it all and realized how naive they had been. So he returns to society. But it’s sad, right? Am I right in my ambivalence?
And finally, Valjean lets his dear Cosette go, finally confesses his heavy soul to Marius and casts himself away. His years of struggling with his own identity and longing for redemption have made him a weary man, and ever spiritual, he goes to a monastery. Marius and Cosette marry without him, but upon realizing that Valjean saved him in the sewers, Marius is swept with the urge to find him and reunite him with his loving daughter. In the novel, Marius shuns Valjean once he learns of his identity, so this need makes things right makes sense, but I suppose here it’s driven by the fact that he views Valjean a greater man than he imagined and thus cannot honor the elder man’s request to keep him away from Cosette in order to protect her from slander? I don’t know, I just go with it.
Valjean is dying, and pleads to God to take him home. He is met by Fantine, who serves as a loving angel to guide him to salvation. Before he can go, Marius and Cosette find him and though it’s pretty devastating that your father dies on your wedding day, it’s also bittersweet. Jean Valjean dies in the arms of true love and happiness, having overcome his troubled past and having learned the goodness in life that he fought so hard to find, despite its being present in himself. Of course we knew that Valjean’s spirit was filled with grace and goodness despite his trespasses, that it was a society that condemned a desperate man to slavery and taught him that he was damned, evil and rotten. So much so that he believed it for so long, even as he did so many valiant and honorable things in his lifetime. In the end, to be accepted by God through the ghosts of Fantine and the Bishop, he has found his peace.
And then I think back on Vajean’s Soliloquy, and the finale has more weight and meaning to it than I could even imagine, for it is really Hugh Jackman’s shining spirit, his dedication to Jean Valjean and his bared soul in his song that carries this epic of a musical from beginning to end and sends its strongest message. Though others may steal the spotlight, it is Jackman that remains the heart and soul of the film, and his performances is at once stunning and cathartic.
And if you have a revolutionary spirit in you like I do, the transformation from the quiet death of Jean Valjean to the barricade for a reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing, sung by all of the deceased characters who didn’t survive to see a better tomorrow, let me tell you that you are going to cry and cry and cry.
Because let’s face it, Victor Hugo’s 150 year old novel about a broken society that tells Jean Valjean he doesn’t deserve happiness or redemption, that makes a slave of Fantine, that teaches Javert there are only two paths in the world, that produces a shining but futureless Eponine and breeds the opportunistic Thenardiers, who simply found a way to survive, is still relevant. Its loud, angry and desperate cry for social justice, for individual happiness, for a brighter future was tailor made for a big emotions, no holds barred kind of musical. And I think every single one of us can find ourselves somewhere in the music, perhaps in all of it. We can see our own society struggle with the struggles in this fantastical musical universe. It doles out messy, grand, over the top emotions, and though Hooper missteps a bit in his wrangling of such a musical monster, in the end the messier the better. It’s sentiment is daring, and it doesn’t hold back from being both raw and unrefined and it really, really works.