Film Chat: Les Misérables

By Hannah Lee

I’ve never attended the first showing of a blockbuster movie, but I saw the premiere showing of Les Misérables at noon on the 25th, along with the other Jews in the area. By the time the credits were over (I always stay for the credits to show respect for the crew), the lobby was mobbed and the line outside was down the block.

The movie was very well done, maybe over-the-top for some tastes, and if the Oscars had a separate category for musicals, I would vote for it as best, but Lincoln, followed by Argo, are still my top choices. It’s been a strong year for films.

In early 19th century France of author Victor Hugo (who published the book in 1862), there is no support network for the poor and the film vividly portrays their wretchedness. The budget for dirt in the film must have been significant. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis objected to the ardent religiosity of the film, compared to the screenplay, but I appreciated its role in explaining how the embittered Valjean, paroled from 19 years of hard labor for the theft of bread for his nephew, could turn his life around by his love for the orphaned Cossette.  Alas, he is perpetually hounded by Inspector Javert, with a singular passion for the law, because Valjean broke his parole. Both Les Mis and Lincoln deal with the issue of slavery and the desire for freedom; the former depicts how fear and obsession could also imprison a soul.

The director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision of filming the actors live, instead of dubbing in their singing voices later. Thus, the sound quality was not as ideal as possible in a recording studio, but the acting looked raw and vibrant. Anne Hathaway was stunning, in voice and acting, in her portrayal of the doomed Fantine, who loses her job unfairly and later her purity and dignity trying to provide for her young daughter, Cossette. Hathaway lost 25 pounds for this role, amidst concern by the director. It may not have been the best role for Hugh Jackman, but he keeps his clothes on (in contrast to his role as the Wolverine in the X-Men series) and as a Tony winner (for The Boy from Oz), his voice is fine for the role of Valjean. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were marvelous as the despicable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and their duet “Master of the House” was a comic farce of how guests may not leave their inn intact.

The Englishman Eddie Redmayne was excellent as the young revolutionary (with a wealthy family) Marius as well as Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Éponine (whose voice was deemed the best in the film according to my opera-loving friend). There is an indelible scene in which the doomed leaders of the failed rebellion of June 1832 are shot and the leader Enjolras falls out the window still holding their flag and his legs are tangled in the air. The young English boy Daniel Huttlestone playing the role of the brave Gavroche had the signature British accent for most Les Mis stage productions; Sacha Baron Cohen had the only discernible French accent for this French tragedy. Amanda Seyfried is beautiful as the teenaged Cossette in a role that does not demand much, but she has a lovely soprano voice and she thrills her notes.  Russell Crowe ably filled the role of the obsessed Javert, a character that defies my understanding.

New York Times critic Dargis objected to the heavy-handedness of the director, but I thought it was a fabulous production as was his previous film, The King’s Speech (my Oscar pick from last year). The opening scene was absolutely awesome, even knowing it was computer-generated, with the hundreds of prisoners hauling in the battleship with Javert astride the deck. The mooring lines gradually rise with their efforts and the men become discernible from the water. As Dargis noted, Valjean becomes the Christ figure with his hoisting of a broken mast and I do not object. Hooper was aptly kind to the Catholic church, which was the sole savior for many souls in that time period.

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