Take my hand and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God
- Les Misérables
When the last note of the film sounded, and the audience finished bursting into applause, my wife looked over at me and said exactly what I was thinking: "that was a masterpiece."
Needless to say, we came into the film adaptation of Les Misérables with low expectations. Movie-musicals have a unique way of grating on the soul, masquerading in their two-faced way as both cinematic and theatrical and really failing to be either, oscillating crazily between corny dialogue and stale studio recordings.
To make matters even more dismal, good friends and devotees of the musical who had seen the film weren't reporting back very positively: they lamented Anne Hathaway's histrionics, Russell Crowe's voice, and the directing choices insofar as they tinkered with the original musical.
Having low expectations helps in creating a positive reception - just ask any politician who goes into a debate with low polling numbers. Still, even if I went in with the highest hopes, I would've come out convinced this is one of the best (if not the best) films of the year, worthy of all kinds of Oscars.
Critics who love the musical but were upset with the film, I think, went into the movie theater looking for their beloved musical on screen, not a cinematic experience. But what Tom Hooper masterfully presents is first and foremost a powerful story; secondly, a beautiful film to propel the story; and thirdly, great music to propel the other two - a trifecta of work that puts grittiness over prettiness, and carves out groundbreaking new territory in the legacy of Les Misérables.
When we last wrote about this adaptation in April, we said that "one common criticism of its creators was that musical theater had no business imposing itself on revered works of classic literature. What they soon proved, however, was that their musical was able to serve Victor Hugo's story in ways that no other adaptation ever could."
This emphasis on Hugo's work shows right from the opening frames; in the backgrounds, in the details, in the cinematography. In every one of these aspects, the story becomes more intricate and immediate.
Then, there are the actor's performances and the music, which are not the floral centerpiece of Les Misérables as the Broadway-minded may have expected, but a catalyst for telling the story and giving shape to the characters. And they do. Though the singing is often soft or even half-spoken, these raw, live renditions turn the volume up on all of the universal human themes of joy in suffering, of hope and fear, of love and unrequited love, of revolution and reaction, of parenting and loss, of fallenness and redemption, of life and death.
his subdued performance draws us into the hidden nature of Javert, his tragic inner world of duty, revenge, and stoicism. And one of the greatest surprises of the film is Eddie Redmayne's take on "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," which brings us intimately into the empty pain of loss. In every case, the actor or actress responds authentically to the situation and the broader scope of the the story, singing as much or as little (and as well or as not-so-well) as the moment calls for.
What is that story? The film's title - "The Miserable Ones" - is no accident. First and foremost, Les Misérables is about suffering and pain; no wonder, then, that two of the most recognizable songs from the soundtrack, "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own," are searing looks at the torment of being un-loved and un-wanted, of being trampled underfoot and kicked to the curb.
More importantly, it's a story of suffering embedded in the story of a God who suffers too, a God who the prayerful Jean Valjean sees time and time again hanging on a cross - in his home, in an abbey, in the street, in a cemetery.
Director Tom Hooper notes in an interview that "the religious subtext of the book Les Misérables on which the musical's based is very strong and [Jean Valjean's] journey is in many senses a spiritual one...he finds contact with God, and through that most importantly he finds the importance of being compassionate to your fellow human being."
Hugh Jackman agrees, saying: "Victor Hugo talks not of a transformation of Jean Valjean, but he calls it transfiguration, which has a kind of spiritual overtone to it...inside, his heart is completely opened up. He's completely changed and he's closer to God in every way."
This religious meditation is not incidental to the story - some kind of after-thought or add-on - but from the very beginning to the finale, is the heart and soul of Les Misérables. The great vision on display (particularly in Tom Hooper's adaptation) is the interconnectedness of our suffering with the suffering of others, and of all human suffering with the promise of redemption through love and self-sacrifice; and the whole story hinges on our actions amounting to something, on the understanding that "those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward."
As one mystic memorably put it, "in the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone" - and as a revelation of this reality, with an attitude of gritty realism soaring to emotional heights only music can reach, Tom Hooper's film is nothing short of a masterpiece.