Friday, April 1, 2016

Movie #353: Les Miserables

Les Miserables is, of course, the cinematic version of the stage musical, starring Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, and Daniel Huttlestone. And that's not even the whole principal cast.

If you don't know the story: Jean Valjean (Jackman), imprisoned for 19 years to stealing bread (well, 5 for that and 5 for trying to run; not sure about the other 9), gets paroled but discovers the world treats ex-cons...pretty much the same way we do now. When he finally snaps and robs a priest (Colm Wilkinson, who was the original actor playing Valjean in the English cast), the priest backs him up to the police and tells him that he's "bought his soul for God." Valjean promises to be a better man, and sods off.

Years later, he's a mayor and a factory owner, and the cop who used to oversee him, Javert (Crowe) tells him that "Valjean" has been captured. Actual-Valjean can't just let this go, because surely God wouldn't approve, so he exposes himself (not like that) and Javert is back on his trail. Meanwhile, one of his factory workers, Fantine (Hathaway), having turned to prostitution, dies of some disease (pick one) and leaves her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Seyfried as an adult) with Valjean.

Fast forward again and now we're in Paris as a group of students led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) is about to lead a revolution. A young man named Marius (Redmayne) sees Cosette, falls in love with her, there's a revolution, everyone dies, it's very sad, look, go buy the soundtrack.

That soundtrack, in fact, was basically the background music to my junior/senior year in high school, but I didn't really get it until I saw it onstage, and then it was really amazing. This movie version is pretty damned impressive, I think; sure, some of the songs have been altered slightly, and they added a couple of new ones (probably to get a shot at Best Original Song), and sure, Eddie Redmayne sounds a little like Kermit the Frog when he sings, and sure, Crowe's voice isn't as strong as the others.

But on the other hand, Jackman and Hathaway are fucking amazing. Bonham Carter is perfect as Mme. Thenardier (Baron Cohen, less so as Thenardier; I kept feeling like he was improvising and screwing with the flow of the songs too much). I personally thought Crowe was fine, if a little out of his element. The cinematography and production design are top-notch, although some of the editing is a little choppy (transitions in movies are very different than onstage).

First time I saw it, I made it all the way to "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" before I cried; this time I didn't get past "I Dreamed a Dream" (watching it at home without people chatting behind me helps). I was struck, too, by how hopeful the story is given how tragic the events are. Sure, everyone dies and the students get shot and lined up like fish, but Cosette and Marius get married, and at the end of his life, Valjean, having proven time and again that he'll show mercy and kindness to people even when they don't really deserve, dies peacefully and goes to be with God.

Look, there's no god in real life, and that means at the end of your days what you get is nothing. But it's comforting to think that maybe, if you live well and love others, that maybe there's some kind of recompense for what you suffer during life. There's not, obviously, it's a story that clever people made up to keep people working and not rebelling (ironically) but it produces some really beautiful imagery.

Note, too, that God is (unlike another recent movie in this list) entirely absent from this movie. It's a story about faith and the different applications thereof (Javert is just as devout as Valjean, in his way), but there are no miracles apart from the usual "holy shit, what a coincidence" you see in theater. People take care of each other, and there is the grace. And that's what always makes me cry when I see this play.

In fact, minor grips about a couple of performances aside, the only alteration I would make to this movie is to have Javert be there to greet Valjean on the barricades at the end.

My grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium, maybe medium-high if you've got time and a box of tissues

Next up: Let the Right One In