To Love Another Person: The Story of "Les Misérables"


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. 

What's worse, this particular movie musical re-envisioned one of the most beloved stage productions of all time, based on the powerhouse 19th century story by Victor Hugo, with its timeless music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; and its director was Tom Hooper, whose recent film The King's Speech bored us to tears. We knew that he was taking a major risk in featuring all live, on-camera singing - a novelty which would either succeed brilliantly or fall flat on its face.

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."

Victor Hugo
Whatever talents the musical had in underscoring Hugo's story pale in comparison to Hooper's film. In interviews, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and all of the actors note that Hooper encouraged them to go back to Victor Hugo's book to discover more detailed descriptions of their characters, more insight into their motivations, and a greater understanding of the themes at play in the novel. This makes sense; a film, in contrast to a stage musical, provides more avenues for intimacy and detail, and opens up a world of subtlety that is just not available on Broadway.

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.

Is Anne Hathaway's agonized performance true to the original, or sing-songy? Not at all - but it's haunting, and brings us closer to the character of Fantine and her pain than ever before. Is Russell Crowe's singing effervescent and earth-shattering? Definitely not - but 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.

But that suffering is always and everywhere a relational suffering - it isn't suffering in isolation, but a mystery of suffering through and with others, a reality most clearly shown when the different melodies of several characters interweave in the ensemble number, "One Day More."

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.

7 comments:

  1. Best review of Les Mis I've read. Couldn't have said it better myself!

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    1. Thanks Katie - Glad you enjoyed it!

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  2. Couldn't agree more. The music really did help to convey the depth of feeling in all the characters, and the conflicts in poor old France too. The story is just so beautiful too.

    I'm inspired to attempt reading the book (and finishing this time) again! It's a bit embarrassing that I haven't done so yet. Yay for literature.

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    1. Thanks Monica - I agree, it's such a beautiful story. And no need to be embarrassed about not finishing the book - it's a long one, and I actually haven't read the book myself yet either! But my wife has, and she was just as enthralled with this iteration of the story that's captivated so much of the world...

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  3. also I hadn't noticed how beautifully written the lines of the musical are (when I saw it on stage). The lines you quoted at the top are my favourite I think.

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  4. I saw Les Mis yesterday and could not agree more with your review. I can't think of another movie musical that has presented the story of redemption and its Christian face any better. For me it was like a profound sermon made more profound by the intimacy of the close-up ( and beautiful ) cinematography . It was like a prayer ( albeit a very long prayer) and something that rarely occurs to me happened --- I felt better for going to this movie. I hope others have the same experience .
    I was curious to see how the professional critics would judge it ,so I went to Rotten Tomatoes and found that only 58 percent of " top critics " gave positive reviews. Any theory as to why?

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    1. Don - Thanks, and I agree, no other movie-musical has moved me in quite this way, and it felt just like a prayer. I didn't even mind the long running time...I almost wish there was more to watch.

      I have absolutely no idea what to make of the Rotten Tomatoes score (which I also looked up after seeing it), or of some of the awful/mediocre reviews I've read in major publications. I feel like we didn't watch the same film.

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