Les Miserables

This is a movie I’ve waited a quarter of a century to see. I saw it three times when it opened in Boston, from the second balcony. Since then the music has acquired layers of meaning for me. The cat songs I improvised for Johann. The housewarming song I wrote for Debbie Ohi the day before she moved in, to the tune of “One Day More.” While hearing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” I was in a castle in Germany for the moment, hearing a different set of words, mourning a different person.

Inevitably it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it was 80 to 90 percent.

At first I had trouble getting used to the close perspective. Aside from my second-balcony experience, the musical is a flyover of a large and complex novel with large amounts of historical background; characters literally stepped from one scene into another on a turntable stage. Seeing the characters so close seemed wrong, and at times the movie tried for an excessive level of realism (e.g., the “galleys” in the opening scene). It particularly bothered me that some of the sung lines were turned into speech. Either this decreased as the movie continued or I got used to it.

The American version of the musical was left almost entirely intact. (Note for Joey Shoji: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is included.) I don’t recall the convent scene; if it was added for the movie, it was a good touch, improving the continuity and keeping a bit of an important part of the book. (The US and UK versions had some significant differences, and the French one was very different, so bits may have come from any of them.) One change that seriously annoyed me was Javert’s drawing a sword on Jean Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed; I was overdosed on swordplay from The Hobbit and many other movies, and it meant that Valjean had to flee instead of overpowering Javert. In that scene, the amount of overlapping between Valjean’s and Javert’s words was greatly decreased, making them easier to understand but reducing the musical tension.

Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of holding the movie together as Jean Valjean. I very much liked Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Daniel Huttlestone was great as Gavroche, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the pup grows up. According to IMDB, this is his first movie, but he has some stage background. Russell Crowe, who played Javert, provided fine singing but wooden acting. There was a nice bit by a French officer who looked as if he really hoped for a peaceful resolution at the barricade before ordering his forces to fire.

Setting up the Thénardiers as comedy relief in the musical never went well with me; they’re deeply nasty characters in the novel. Sacha Baron Cohen makes things even worse in the movie by trying to play Johnny Depp. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine left me cold, though I can’t really say why.

I sniffled a lot. It wasn’t the perfect realization of what I would have liked to see, but it was close.


3 Responses to “Les Miserables”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    One change that seriously annoyed me was Javert’s drawing a sword on Jean Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed; I was overdosed on swordplay from The Hobbit and many other movies, and it meant that Valjean had to flee instead of overpowering Javert.

    Interesting; that was a scene that annoyed me in the stage musical, and I found the change in the movie to be a major improvement. In the novel, Javert does arrest Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed and returns him to prison; Valjean escapes six months later, secretly returns to Montreuil-sur-mer to retrieve a large amount of cash he had hidden, and then goes to the Thenardiers and rescues Cosette. I thought having Valjean overpower Javert made no sense, and diminished the character of Javert by making him seem incompetent. The way this is done in the movie seems like a good compromise, making things closer to the novel, avoiding making Javert incompetent, but also keeping the immediacy of Valjean going directly from Fantine’s deathbed to rescuing Cosette.

    My biggest annoyance with the stage musical was the omission of the scene in which Javert tells the Mayor that “the real Valjean” has been caught, confesses that he had denounced the Mayor on flimsy evidence as being Valjean, and demands that the Mayor press charges against him. This scene is absolutely central to the character of Javert, demonstrating the absolute sincerity of his convictions, and providing the motivation for his subsequent obsession with Valjean. The way this is done in the stage musical misses this crucial part of the characterization, and also makes it completely gratuitous and unexplained why Javert tells the Mayor about Valjean at all. I was very glad that they put this scene back in the movie.

    The convent scene is not in the US version of the stage musical, and I agree that adding it was also a good touch.

    Having said that, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the movie. I found the excessive “realism” of many scenes (“excessive gross-out” may be a better term) to be seriously off-putting. I also was disappointed with the quality of singing. My view is that the performer who makes or breaks this musical is the one in the role of Javert; both in San Francisco and on Broadway Javert was performed by powerful operatic Baritones; in contrast, I didn’t like either Russell Crowe’s acting or his singing. Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks are both excellent, but their roles are too small to make the difference for the overall quality of the movie; and other than these two, I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed with any of the performers.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      One thing that bothers me about both the stage and movie versions of the musical is that we don’t get the faintest idea what the uprising is about. Hugo went into huge amounts of detail about the background and motivation of this minor rebellion in French history, but that’s all lost. It’s for “freedom,” but has there ever been a rebellion in history that didn’t claim to be for freedom?

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        I don’t think I agree. Do the background and motivations of the uprising make any actual difference to the story? I don’t see that they do. All that’s important to the story is that there is an uprising, and that it is a cause that the students sincerely believe in; the rest is interesting as a matter of history, but doesn’t change anything in our understanding of the plot and the characters.

        Hugo provides these details, not through action or dialog, but by embedding a historical essay in the novel. We might disagree on whether the inclusion of this essay contributes to the novel or detracts from it; but either way, a musical can’t do that. If they wanted to explain what the uprising is about, they’d have had to come up with a song that would include the historical information; doing that while still making it a good song would have been a very difficult task, perhaps impossible, and I don’t think they can be blamed for not trying to do it.

        As far as I can remember, of all the movie versions of the novel, the 1998 version with Liam Neeson was the only one that tried to include the information about the motivation for the uprising. There’s a scene in that movie in which Valjean tells Cosette that he expects trouble in Paris during General Lamarque’s funeral, and explains the reason why there might be an uprising. My feeling was that that scene didn’t work, and detracted from the movie.

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