The Dream Divine: Les Miserables

Once in awhile, good actors and good filmmakers decide to indulge the id and make a musical. And those trailers come out and I basically hang them in front of my face like a Milk-Bone biscuit on a string and sit in front of the computer hungrily re-watching for hours. Months. Until I purchase a ticket with or without a friend, and get me my $61 million-dollars-worth of emotion.

Sacre-effing-bleu, Les Miserables is good. It was so good I mais ouis-oui’ed in my pants a little bit and I cried a lotta bit. It was dark and raw and expansive, running rich with blood and grime. It was also tender, caressing the complex human corners exposed by the stage musical while bravely stepping a bit further into historical reality.

At its heart, Les Mis is a deconstruction and a celebration of human virtue. There are many frameworks through which the concept is virtue is brilliantly refracted: military revolution, sexuality, the Church, love and time, political law, local law, moral law. It’s crazy how many layers there are to work through in the original script, and I think it’s crazy AND amazing that Tom Hooper directed a film version that not only develops them all, but preserves the sacred experience of watching humans struggle with them live, in real time.

The actors recorded their vocals while filming their scenes. I think this was a beautiful and refreshing choice, because as a musicals whore, I’ve grown too accustomed to life auto-tuned. In a sense, many of my favorite movie-musicals (Cabaret, West Side Story) are distant cousins of their source material, because the vocals are pre-strained, pre-sanitized, “taken care of,” if you will, in order to ensure that the holistic experience of viewing is without distractions. You get to watch the stage show up close, at its most pristine. But here the live vocals achieve a sublime truth. Here the cheese stands alone, brave and devastatingly effective. I’m talking about Les Mis.  Les Mis is the cheese.

Back to virtue (oh my god, these blog posts GET AWAY FROM ME, ALWAYS. Focus, self). The two lynchpins here are the characters Jean Valjean, ex-convict on the unflinching path to redemption, and Fantine, a poor young maid forced into prostitution and trampled in spite of her goodness (she pretty much lives like Mary Magdelene and dies like Jesus). Life is very unfair to them both, but they walk the high road and meet by chance, changing both their destinies. Many other subplots support the story, but Les Mis depends most on these two roles, strongly played.

I remember when Anne Hathaway hopped up onstage to splash some sparkle on Hugh Jackman’s 2009 opening number at the Oscars. That right there was her audition. She was nothing more than cute, but she lent crucial public support to Jackman’s career-long campaign to revive the song-and-dance-man. I think this moment started some Hollywood juices flowing.

I’ve always been an Anne fan, and felt charitable towards her adorable efforts in serious roles. But she always seemed to lack a depth, a damage. I honestly did not see her performance as Fantine coming. FOR IT IS A REVELATION.

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She is vulnerable, young, wracked by terror in many scenes documenting her downfall into the Paris underworld. But most important, Anne’s Fantine is PRESENT. She does not simply play ruined innocence; she plays anger, heart-rending in its futility. She is a pathetic woman, but was not always, and makes the ghost of her dignity known. Her iconic performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” brings up emotional tones I never saw before in the song;. It is filmed completely in close-up, no flashbacks to the events alluded to; I expect it would be particularly tempting to show us the young man who abandoned her in pregnancy, since Fantine reaches new heights of despair during those passages. I really cannot describe what it’s like to watch her, suffering both as a character and an actor, her emaciated body and shorn head shaking, while she performs the absolute dickens out of this song.

Her delicate portrayal holds this movie together. She serves as a beacon to Jean Valjean and even the characters who never knew her. Fantine’s presence lingers, long after her arc is over. Anne really tears herself apart for the sake of the music, and the result is nothing less than haunting.

Equally brilliant is Hugh Jackman as Valjean. Full disclosure: I already think (or KNOW) that he is flawless, so none of it came as a surprise – the superior acting, note-perfect physical choices, subtly tailored sub-personas arising in Valjean’s various relationships. I was really taken aback by the opening scenes of the film, in which he struggles at his lowest point. He’s homeless, an outcast of society, wracked by grief and vengeance, and hates himself. Not a leading man, not handsome, not even human. The fact that Hugh wrings out every drop of nuance while delivering some of the strongest vocals of his career is both expected and unexpected. Tears are pouring out of his bloodshot eyes, his weather-beaten face is collapsing in on itself like a pile of firewood…he sings, fails, swallows, then soars. He is literally so IN IT, so good,  it defies logic.

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As for the rest of the cast, the triumphs far outweighed the missteps. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Eddie Redmayne, who goes FAR beyond  what the role of Marius requires to create a true representation of youthful righteousness. I always found him a little boring, but Eddie couches him successfully in the great crucible of his life. He’s an endearing chap forced to prove his mettle in a war he’s ill-prepared for, all the while dealing with the white-hot pain-joy of first love, and the meaning of loyalty. Eddie manages to play a broken soul without losing his boyish innocence. I had no idea he was such a talented singer, or had such ready access to dark emotions. It seems his first significant film experience (one of my most hated biopics) did not truly illustrate his onscreen authenticity. I apologize, Eddie Redmayne, because you really killed it this time.

Also excellent were Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen as the ostentatious, vicious, dirty Thenardiers. As the comic relief,  they played off each other as a solid unit, providing much needed diversions to the heavy central plot as necessary. They tore open swaths of light and color at the right moments, building just the right amount of a love-to-hate factor. True professionals both.

But oh, sweet gripery: Russell Crowe was a terrible choice for the antagonist, Inspector Javert. I just believe this, in my heart of hearts. He is not open enough in his choices to keep pace with the rest of the cast and the gritty honesty of the film. He played only the obvious contradiction in Javert – duty vs. ethics – which is so boring when you let it sit there on the surface. He was just so wrong. And his vocal performance was so atrocious it strained credulity and did a disservice to the story.

He is Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia. Yeah, I went there and I really have to stay there.

The two young ingenues, Cosette and Eponine, are played with passable beauty and no shortage of crocodile tears by the forgettable Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks, respectably. They are both committed enough to stoke the deep embers of the film’s heart when it’s their job, but neither girl goes deep enough to make the role relatable or truly affecting beyond its purpose as a trope. This is especially disappointing in the case of Barks, who squanders the aching classic “On My Own.” Her emotional flatness would not have been a huge issue in musical theater, since her singing is so powerful, but onscreen she is dead weight. I was suuuupa pissed when Lea Michele was not cast in the role, because I knew this part required a real wounded doe, inspiring almost as much epic sympathy as Fantine. Lea knows how to throw feminine pain like a javelin. Barks just couldn’t flesh out her Eponine, and so contributed to the back-seating of her story and all the others set after the inciting incidents between Fantine and Valjean.

Be that as it may, because of the sheer power contained in those two main forces, the film was still deeply affecting as a whole. Maybe even close to perfect. Everything worked; I even got used to and grew fascinated by the intrusive camera, peering anxiously into every face, unwavering and letting us see people search for meaning from second to second. You could get drunk on the visual style, alternating between palettes of deep grays and explosive reds. And the length just ain’t no thang. It is a huge tale, grappling with good and evil and God and love, and the three hours it needed didn’t even seem like enough.

So yeah, this recommendation comes from me to you, with four stars and two thumbs up and one evening lost to typing this clunky maelstrom of critical rapture. Bring tissues and your heart at its most alive. At the very least, experience the love and care it took to bring you, the viewer and the human, a musical of truth and quality. Appreciate the courage it took to make this picture, a story that falters and flies, crushes, then revives.

The moment has arrived. C’est magnifique. The musical is back.

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One thought on “The Dream Divine: Les Miserables

  1. Wow ! I had seen the Broadway show and was utterly impacted. Have not seen this big screen version yet and always intended to, but now am already salivating with anticipation. You “set the stage” beautifully.

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