by Sam Juliano
‘Those who do not weep do not see’ -Victor Hugo
Art is manipulative. Whether its creator’s intent is to spur humor or consternation, or move the work’s viewers to the depth of their being, there is always a conscious and overriding intent to embolden and exhilarate through a direct appeal to the emotions. Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Mozart, Beethoven, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens and Dante succeeded as well as any others in the pantheon of Western culture. Then there’s Victor Hugo, whose 1862 novel Les Miserables, written on wide canvas of suffering, injustice and loss, asserted that love and compassion are the most important gifts one can forward another in this life. Hugo takes his case even further when he proposes that “To die for lack of love is terrible, the asphyxia of the soul” and “To love or have loved, that is enough. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.” Hugo’s sprawling novel, with it’s emotional epiphanies and character-driven melodramatic narrative was meant to be a transformative work, one aimed to spur government reforms, especially within the justice system and the unjust class structure in nineteenth-century France, one that turns good people into beggars and criminals. With it’s larger than life characters and lofty philosophical themes, Hugo’s novel was a perfect subject for the cinema, and tailor-made for some kind of operatic transcription. To be sure there have been dozens of film adaptations of the epic work dating back to the silent era all the way up to a 1998 adaptation by Bille August with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey playing Valjan and Javert. The number of times filmmakers worldwide have turned to Hugo’s novel may well in fact be within hailing distance of Stoker’s Dracula and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The best of these versions was Raymond Bernard’s four-hour plus epic of 1934, which is the most faithful to the source, and a 1935 Hollywood treatment with Fredric March and Charles Laughton in the leads that is well acted and mounted but substantially truncated.
What was ultimately to turn into a worldwide phenomenon, was the first musical of the work, a stage play composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil that was distinctly operatic and suffused with soaring lyricism and some unforgettable arias. Breaking records in New York and Paris, Les Miserables continues it’s amazing longevity in a west end theater in London. The score, with it’s beautiful melodies and stirring anthems has captivated and touched audiences since it first appeared, and for many it was a kind of introduction to opera, without spoken dialogue and virtually every line sung. With it’s politically correct themes and the tragic endings of most of it’s cast Les Miserables was always a work with operatic underpinnings, and the tears are hardly at odds with it’s tragic arc and deep sense of poignancy. It’s high brow art, but too often is misunderstood by people with low brow tastes. Those at odds with their unwillingness or inability to emote at such material often find themselves lashing out against a work that never made any attempt to hide it’s intent. Les Miserables is manipulative all right, like some of our greatest art.
When Tom Hooper’s film version of the stage musical was first announced it immediately divided expectations. The theater fans were exultant that the their beloved work was finally being made into a film, and the opportunity to here new singers take on these venerated songs, while others fully expected another The Phantom of the Opera fiasco, though this writer thought the reaction to that 2004 film was way too harsh, in good measure for the same reasons that have been applied against the stage Les Miserables and it’s score. It seems the Christmas Day opening has yielded a realization of this division, though generally the yay-sayers seem to outnumber the haters. Still, there is sharp disagreement on the success or lack thereof of an artistic decision made at the outset by director Tom Hooper, who had the actors recorded live rather than lip synching to a dubbed track to keep their performances more authentic and on par with an actual stage turn. Taking matters a step further the gambling Hooper opted to go full face with the singing of the work’s pivotal songs, using the close-up with the austere bravado of Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose The Passion of Joan of Arc was perhaps cinema’s most celebrated example of the cinematic power of this device. While the non-emoters have complained that exceeding use of the close-up deprives them of the stage variety that would would work with a more mid-range approach, the gambit yields the intimacy that such highly-charged drama and music can gain the most from. Hooper, who received some great performances from his cast in The King’s Speech, again relies on actors to give his film it’s most resonant element, though the fact that his new film is a musical means it all comes down to the singing. And in that department Les Miserables, reliant on big-name stars has received a surprisingly solid ensemble contribution. Best of all is Anne Hathaway, who brings thunderous emotional intensity to her rendition of one of the score’s most beloved numbers “I Dreamed A Dream.” Dreyer is again envisioned as Hathaway’s fearless Fantine, with shaven head and physical anguish leaves no room for indifference. Hathaway’s relatively quick exit from the film (no fault of Hooper’s or the stage musical, but a reality of Hugo’s novel) is a major blow, and while Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks especially keep the flags flying, the impression made by Hathaway is wholly arresting. Fantine is a prostitute in Hugo’s novel who sells her teeth to support her young daughter Cosette. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, she expires in a hospital in front of Valjean (Jackman) being assured that her daughter will be cared for as long as he’s alive. By that point in the story, Valjean (who stole a loaf of bread to feed starving family members and was imprisoned for 19 years) has been reinvented as a philanthropist after a Bishop extended to him an act of such overwhelming kindness, that he has dedicated the remainder of his days towards enhancing the human condition.
The film, play and novel’s most dramatic hook is the relentless pursuit of Valjean by “Inspector Javert,” a merciless prison guard and policeman who devotes his life at that point towards making Valjean pay for his past indescretions. Of course as painted by Hugo, Javert’s strokes show a man of no soul, obsessed with the law at the cost of decency and compassion. This one-note character has been given superb demonic presence by Charles Venal and Charles Laughton in prior films of the work, but this quality is lacking in Russell Crowe’s admittedly self-conscious interpretation. Crowe, who is said to have a musical background is not nearly as bad a singer as some are claiming, but it’s lacks the color and earthiness of his counterparts and is too closely aligned with the monotone nature of the character he is playing. Crowe does do a decent enough job with some of his big moments, especially the musically ravishing “Stars” where he revels in his “mission.” Hooper is less effective with his staging of one of the play’s most celebrated numbers “Master of the House” which is contingent of the use of space. In this sense, it is the one number that does suffer from a more claustrophobic approach. Sasha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter sing the bouncy number with relish but seem to fall victim to some confusing choreography. I’ve always thought myself of the song as a throwaway and certain application of comic relief, so it’s not really of major consequence. In the novel the “Thenardiers” are innkeepers and evil incarnate, and have remorselessly enslaved young Cosette.
Hugh Jackman projects a raw quality as Valjean, and convincing prosthetics accomplish face scars from prison abuse, and a stoic delivery that possesses it’s own unique intonation. To be sure Jackman is hardly the equal of the best stage Valjeans (Hooper pays homage to Colm Wiliknson, the most celebrated Valjean of all, by having him playing the kindly Bishop of Vigne.) but he’s a fine singer who fuels his performance with feeling, acing his big number and one of the work’s most deeply felt, “Bring Him Home,” sung on the battlements as a plea for the survival and safety of young Marius (Redmayne) who is Cosette’s lover. Never mind of course that plenty of people who have seen Les Miserables still believe it’s about the French Revolution of 1789, instead of the student revolution of 1832. Jackman is stirring too when he bursts forth with “Who an I?” and when he provides one of the multiple voices in the convent in an ghostly epiloque that is sure to melt the hardest of hearts. Jackman does a good job too with the score’s weakest song, “Suddenly” which was commissioned specifically for the film by the composers. There’s neither anything musically exciting or especially lyrical in the piece, but it’s not an easy act to equal the rest of this rapturous line-up. It is Jackman’s character of course who brings on the most tears, and it’s a testament to his interpretation that he keeps you fully enthralled and emotionally immersed. Valjean doesn’t need a great voice (though Jackman has a very good one) but one who can transcribe the character’s humanity. Like many of the best Italian operas where the most sublime passages are reprised in vital spots, Jackman is equally effective in support as he is solo, much having to do with the natural, unadorned quality of his voice.
The lovely Samantha Barks plays Eponine, who is hopelessly in love with Marius (and says so three times in one of the score’s most venerated songs, “On My Own”) bringing to bear an irresistible charm and aching familiarity with a role she’s taken on in a year of West End performances. She’s also an attractive contributor to the beautiful “A Heart Full of Love” with Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried, the grown-up Cosette whose bird like sound is a perfect continuation of what we heard from her character as a young girl in “Castle on a Cloud.”
Danny Cohen’s largely sumptuous cinematography, which visualizes the world that the stage cannot -sweeping overhead pans and grimy Paris streets where heated students rebellions turn to violence-makes fine use of CGI, most impressively in the opening “Look Down” prison sequence. Cohen, editors Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens collaborate with Hooper on the spirited montage “One Day More,” which brings in all the principals in a dazzling sequence that recalls the mid-film rumble preparation in West Side Story that culminates with a soaring reprise of “Tonight.” The flash cutting and close-ups give this piece a visceral quality that can’t be matched on stage.
Then there’s Eddie Redmayne who plays the romantic lead Marius, who is saved by Valjean and lives to remember his comrades, all killed on the battlements. His haunting aria “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables,” shows the actor at his impassioned best, delivering a haunting eulogy to his deceased friends whose ‘phantom shadows and faces at the window’ are all that are left in an existence of unspeakable grief:
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone
Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.
From the table in the corner
They could see a world reborn
And they rose with voices ringing
I can hear them now!
The very words that they had sung
Became their last communion
On the lowly barricade..
Oh my friends, my friends forgive me.
That I live and you are gone
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Phantom faces at the window
Phantom shadows on the floor
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more…
Redmayne is marvelous in his duets, and seems like a great physical choice for the lover who survives the tragic and endless sorrow in this story of the steepest price paid. And he does show some romantic chemistry with Seyfried.
Not every shot, not every pan, not every shaky cam sequence works in Les Miserables, but I give Hooper all the credit for daring to leave the box, and refusing to confine this theatrical work to its roots. With one of the greatest of all Broadway scores, based on a mighty source, his version of Les Miserables soars on the uniformly impressive singing, two audacious directorial decisions that largely succeed and the powerful telling of a story that never loses a timeless appeal. This Les Miserables is one of the best films of the year.