At the movies: LES MISERABLES

LES MISERABLES: Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, via
LES MISERABLES: Anne Hathaway as Fantine, via

Les Misérables
Musical drama, 2012 (rated PG-13)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried
Written by: Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Directed by: Tom Hooper

Synopsis, via Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption-a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Jackman plays ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert (Crowe) after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette, their lives change forever. In December 2012, the world’s longest-running musical brings its power to the big screen in Tom Hooper’s sweeping and spectacular interpretation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale. — (C) Universal

“Read the book before you see the movie” is no longer one of my life rules. I’m more likely now to be interested in reading a book after I’ve seen it adapted to film, and in either case, I’m becoming less likely to declare one method of storytelling inherently “better” than the other. Perhaps my approach has become more postmodern. In any case, I’ve never read the French classic, Les Misérables. Now that I’ve seen it on film, I’m still not likely to read it–but I’d like to see the stage musical it inspired, and which in turn inspired this movie.

The fact that I wanted to see Les Misérables at all is a credit to its marketing, to be honest. The behind-the-scenes featurette that’s been running in theaters since the summer piqued my interest, and the trailers that followed it gave me genuine chills. I’ve been a fan of musicals most of my life, and Hugh Jackman is in his element in a musical. Seeing this when it opened on Christmas Day was high on my holiday wish list this year.

Les Misérables is aptly named–although it has its lighter moments, it’s a bleak story. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child, Jean Valjean (Jackman) is paroled. After being shown kindness by a priest, he decides he must change his life; when the story finds him again several years later, living under an assumed name, he has become a prosperous factory owner and mayor of his town. Eventually, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who has been pursuing him since he broke parole, will find him again; but in the meantime, Valjean will pay kindness forward by adopting Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, later Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of dying factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway). He and Cosette live quietly until she catches the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and they are drawn into the student-led Paris rebellion of 1832.

As I said, I haven’t read the book, and I only knew little pieces of the story before I went into this. However, I’ll give its literary roots some credit for the fact that Les Misérables has weightier themes and more complex characters than the average musical. I found the central conflict between Valjean and Javert interesting because it’s not stereotypical “good vs. evil.” Javert does come off as the villain of the piece, but he truly believes that he is doing the right thing; his mission is to uphold and enforce the law, which he values above all else, and he doesn’t believe people can change. Valjean also believes in the rightness of his own actions, but his story is one of personal reinvention–he does change. That said, the real evil here what becomes of a society when it shrugs off the struggles of its weakest, least privileged members…and nearly two centuries later, it’s still sadly resonant.

Although it doesn’t look at all like a filmed stage production, Les Misérables has a major element in common with one: the actors all sing their parts live. Since this is a show without much straight dialogue–it’s more operatic–song is integral to nearly every performance, and it’s much more effective to know that it’s not being mimed to pre-recorded vocals. Since most of the cast doesn’t have much musical acting experience–Jackman, Redmayne, and Samantha Barks (Eponine) are exceptions–I think this worked especially well, and it helped me stay focused on the characters and what they were doing.

I was unfamiliar with the music of Les Misérables before I saw the movie, but I bought the soundtrack that evening and I think I may grow to love it. And I want to see the movie again–it’s nearly three hours long, but I barely noticed the time. I was completely drawn into the story, the emotion, and the music. If you’re apt to be drawn into those things too, see Les Misérables.

(Marie at Boston Bibliophile pretty much agrees.)

Disclosure: My husband, son, and I purchased our own tickets to see Les Misérables on Christmas Day, 2012 at Cinépolis in Westlake Village, CA. I saw it a second time on New Year’s Day, with my sister, in the same theater, and again purchased my own ticket.

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