By Soot-Case Murphy
An image recurs in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. Javert, a man with the loaded, self-awarded title of “the law” (Russell Crowe) looks upon the ground far below him. His leather shoes glisten as they step along a ledge. One inch to the left and he is safe from harm. To the right is sure doom. Cynics believe lawmen are not “men of the people” like they so claim, as circumstances befuddle them into walking a thin line that can elevate them to glory or plummet them to shame. It’s a thin, blurred barrier that separates hero from villain. Lavish from ruin. Country from catastrophe. It’s not just for lawmen. We all endure it. Thirty-two years after Claude-Michel Schonberg’s opus premiered on in Paris, Hooper is the man to illustrate it. Like the cobbled, ruinous road that navigates 19th century France, the film’s path is a bumpy one.
Les Mis – as the kids call it– is a sacred cow of musical theatre; a passionate, jagged quasi-opera based upon Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. Since opening in France, the show’s own setting, in 1980, its themes of redemption, romance, and tragedy have moved millions. It is so beloved that no sterile, heavily edited adaptation can match the rawness of live theatre. Given that horrifically daunting challenge, Hooper does his best. He knows how to make a film look like its time and place, but from the get-go, the backgrounds are so glaringly computer generated that the contrivance is in full view. Think of a French-kissed, impoverished Avatar.
Still, the timeless story of wronged prisoner-turned-countryman Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) forgoing his wounded past and favoring a life of reconciliation persists. After generously being taken in by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who portrayed Valjean for years on Broadway), who subsequently forgives him for stealing church silver if it means starting a fresh life, Valjean becomes prosperous. Still, Javert hangs over him like a specter, less forgiving of Valjean’s wrongdoing. After Valjean plays the role of a Good Samaritan for a man about to be crushed, Crowe recognizes the man who escaped his clutches nine years previous. Valjean escapes persecution, but another falls from grace. I refer to Anne Hathaway as the desperate Fantine, the marginalized lone mother who is reduced to turning tricks to save her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried). Valjean successfully barters with “Master of the House” Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his equally surly wife (Helena Bonham Carter) for Cosette’s life, and the two of them flee to Paris.
Nine years pass. The streets are more impoverished than ever, and a revolution is about to break. At the helm is a student, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls for Cosette. It’s this romance that forms the film’s central flaw – it’s too rushed to seem real. The envy of Thenardier’s daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) is much stronger. Having not seen the stage musical, I have only heard from others that the romance is not much more elaborate. It’s a flaw that isn’t fixed, rendering the adaptation too faithful rather than an improvement. Revolution becomes the focus, and it’s gritty and riveting. Too much more detail would be giving information away.
Jackman’s double career for himself –a part-time able-bodied badass, part-time Broadway baby– is put to good use. He’s no Jimmy Cagney, but the duality of his performance is the stuff that makes up award winning dreams. Equally wonderful is Anne Hathaway who delivers the famous and vulnerable “I Dreamed a Dream.” Watch the camerawork. It rarely darts away. Hooper disobeys a long-standing musical cliché of deviating from the singer in favor of flashback or some distracting visual aid. The performances reach beyond the music into gasp-filled hamminess, but, hey it’s an opera. Melodrama is key. Hooper knows the show’s emotional crux is the music itself. No images can ever suffice what is truly happening within the heart and mind. It’s truly a film that requires the ears and mind.
The eyes have some treats in store for them, be assured. The opener “Look Down” is a brilliant set-piece shows the robotic expectations of slaves and prisoners to carry a nation on its shoulders while the higher-ups get the credit. The barricade, which was the primary set-piece in the stage show, holds a lot of weight. The set designer captures France as perpetually crumbling, although it’s often hard to tell when the film is cutting away or casting it all in a murky shadow or giving the players their close ups. Certainly the songs and drama are given due respect, but marvelous shots are abandoned of their potential. It’s a film that would rather capture beads of sweat and bad teeth than the weather-beaten land and mood.
Les Miserables is a daring feat. It’s a Hollywood-backed musical that is sung through with a dreary ending, making it not very Hollywood at all. Still, clichés prosper, chief among them the hurried romance which the audience is expected to buy after a single passing glance. Additionally, the planning of the revolution is equally rushed, but as the original material is far longer and more panoramic, the task of cramming everything into two and a half hours is never easy. For all of its faults, Les Miserables is never as glorious as it thinks it is, but the performances and ambition keep the dream alive.