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Fourteen years after it’s last well-known adaptation, Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech” fame takes on one of the greatest literary works of the nineteenth century under the scrutiny of the camera. The stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is re-granted a strong crop of voices and a fresh coat of paint, none of which could have been done without the unwavering dedication and rigorous discipline of all involved. Also, for a production best known in its theatrical form, the musical drama provides a proverbial front-row seat to the rawness of its audio and visual emotion. Each performance throughout the 158-minute run achieves a whole new class in itself.
There are no slow expositions in this film; France in 1815 is projected to viewers through the port of Toulon. The raging waters of the sea’s edge casts a ghostly filter between a massive ship and the rocky shore. The watercraft, fresh from its maritime journey, lies on it side, as it is slowly hauled onto dry land by prisoners. Among the group is Jean Valjean (played flawlessly by Hugh Jackman), a man serving for theft. His body is a testament to nineteen years of the incarcerated life. Valjean’s exhaustion from towing and subsequent anger barely escapes the vigilant eyes of prison guard Javert (played by Russell Crowe), who addresses him by his prisoner number, 24601. When called to lift the ship’s large flag, summons his entire will to do so meekly. It would be his last task before being released on parole.
Unfortunately, the mark of a thief and escapee is permanent, and Valjean’s stained records close many doors throughout the valleys and mountains he treks. The rejections increase his likelihood of being a vagrant, and without anything to eat nor a place to sleep, he settles for a cold, wet Church doorstep. The kindly Bishop of Digne (played by Colm Wilkinson) finds him, and offers him free food and lodging. He even overlooks Valjean’s ignorance of mealtime prayers. In the middle night, Valjean steals the Church’s silver, and flees, only to be caught by the authorities. He is thrown at the feet of the startled Bishop, who is then asked to verify if the claim of the silver being a gift to Valjean is true. The Bishop confirms it. In a shocking gesture, picks up two silver candlesticks from a nearby table, and places it in Valjean’s sack, saying he had been close to leaving without “the best”. The interlude moves Valjean greatly, and he vows to change his life. He tears his parole papers, and sends them flying into the wind, along with his previous identity.
Eight years later, Valjean has become the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, and the owner of a factory. During one of his routine visits, he narrowly witnesses one of his workers, Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway), getting sacked from the job, after it is revealed that she is sending money to her illegitimate daughter. Now penniless and desperate, Fantine sells her hair and teeth to scramble for extra money, and eventually resorts to prostitution to make ends meet. She receives her first customer, and after he drops some money in his wake, Fantine realises the bleakness of her situation.
Valjean could have stepped in to prevent Fantine from taking to the streets, yet he does not. He is soon to see how his and her lives would be inexplicably intertwined. Valjean’s distinguished status now puts him in good esteem with the police, and finds himself conducting several appointments with Javert himself. The man of the law is propelled to recall moments of his time as a prison guard, when Valjean exercises his incredible strength to lift a cart to free a man trapped under it. Afraid to disrespect Valjean, Javert quickly dismisses his suspicions. Valjean and Javert continue associate with each other, and while out and about, the two stumble upon an altercation taking place within the darker streets of the northern French sub-prefecture. The brawl involves Fantine and a particularly opportunistic customer, trying to get more than his share. Despite assaulting her, he embellishes on her violence, and Fantine is arrested. Valjean intervenes, and after an initial rebuking from Fantine, recognises her from the factory. She tells him about her daughter, Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen), and he promptly brings her to the hospital.
By now, the close calls of recognition are starting to get the better of Valjean. When he receives the news that a man believed to be him is arrested, he agonises over the idea of an innocent man being condemned. He steps up to reveal his true identity to the court. He heads to the hospital to visit Fantine, and finds find her delirious. He vows to find and take care of Cosette, and Fantine dies, secure of her daughter’s fate. Javert finds Valjean, and the two duel in front of Fantine’s body. Valjean manages to escape the hospital, and proceeds to relieve Cosette from the care of the Thénardiers. The Thénardier family, headed by Madame and Monsieur Thénardiers (played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen, respectively, own an inn, and are well-known for their swindling ways. The couple have taken in Cosette into their care at Fantine’s request, but their treatment of her is akin to that of a servant, which is a stark contrast to the manner in which they dote on Éponine (played by Natalya Angel Wallace), their daughter. Valjean finds Cosette while on her route to the well, and they return together to the inn. Valjean outwits the tricksters, then breaks the news of Fantine’s death and final wish. After a little negotiation and 1500 francs, Cosette is officially entrusted to Valjean’s care. As the newly formed father and daughter walk away, the Thénardiers express regret in not getting even more cash out of the deal. However, Valjean is not without preoccupation. He is once again a man on the run, and with another life to care for, the potential danger that follows him also befalls Cosette.
Nine years pass, the French political landscape is about to change. General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, well-known for sympathising with the plight of the poor, is nearing death. Uncertainty is in the air, and demonstrations in the streets. Among the crowd are Marius Pontmercy (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (played by the boyish Aaron Tveit), who are part of a band of republican students planning a revolution. Street urchin Gavroche (played by Daniel Huttlestone) is up to his usual antics by aggravating the passengers of the wealthy carriages wheeling by. In the middle of all the commotion, Marius’ grandfather, the prominent Monsieur Gillenormand (played by Patrick Godfrey), is greatly embarrassed by his grandson’s display. He reminds Marius of their family image, but their interaction remains brief.
Marius lives in a ramshackle apartment, despite coming from a life of wealth. Passionate about his country, he agrees to be part of the rebellion, and promptly begins preparations upon the announcement of Lamarque’s death. Only his closest friend and companion, the now older Éponine (played by Samantha Barks), is aware of his family background. Her family had been thrown into a life of begging and petty theft after frequent dancing along the lines of the law. She is also short of Marius’ affections. The burden of unrequited love becomes especially heavy when Marius, from a distance catches sight of and instantly falls in love with Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried), who has now blossomed into a young woman. Éponine recognises her immediately, and after some enthusiastic coaxing by Marius tell him more, she reluctantly shows him Valjean’s and Cosette’s house.
Inside the lush residence, Cosette still feels as though the man she knows as her father is still very much a stranger. Valjean still conceals every moment of his past, and shuts down every enquiry conjured by his daughter. Finally finding the house, Marius and Cosette formally make their acquaintance in the garden. From a distance, Éponine had been watching the behalf of thieves planning a break-in, but ends up grappling with the reality that her love for Marius will always be unilateral. Soon after Cosette re-enters the house, the thieves — including her father — arrive at the gates. Éponine fears for Cosette’s safety, and insists the house an unremarkable burgle. Her father insists, and she screams, before being struck in the face. Valjean hears the noise outside, and mistakenly believes that Javert has knowledge of their hiding place. Demanding strict obedience from Cosette, they flee again, but not before Cosette leaves a note for Marius wedged on her gate. Éponine finds and keeps the piece of paper.
Meanwhile in the café, the entire assembly of the Friends of ABC frantically prepare for the revolution. After some convincing from his friends, Marius manages to put his love for Cosette aside and returns his focus on the greater cause. He writes Cosette a farewell letter. On D-Day, the students intercept the general’s funeral, and the unrest begins. The Friends of ABC barricade themselves inside a small street, and arm themselves with weapons and the pile of furniture from its residents. Javert, disguised as a rebel, sneaks into their side, in order to retrieve inside information for the opposition. He is quickly caught when Gavroche recognises him. As punishment, Javert is bound and kept hostage inside of the café. The French begin attacking.
The fighting continues and Marius witnesses friends die, one by one. Éponine steps in the way of a bullet meant for Marius, and takes a fatal shot. She lies in Marius’ arms under the light rain, and professes her secret love for him while handing him the note from Cosette. After Éponine breathes her last, he quickly composes a response and gives it to Gavroche to deliver to her. Valjean intercepts the letter, and soon learns that Cosette, his source of happiness, has acknowledged the initial awakenings of romance, and he would soon have to prepare himself for the presence of another man. In disguise, he enters the barricade to find Marius.
Valjean a man who borne the burdens of life’s cruelty, one branded by a single number, and only legally known only for his most despicable acts, would conduct a final few reparations for his life in a final act of love.
British director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen pair up once again in “Les Misérables” to create an extraordinary visual experience. The film is rich in hues of reds, blues, browns, then sunkissed with golden yellow filtering, resemble extracts of an art gallery. Though not as explicit as his efforts in “The King’s Speech”, Hooper, best known for his scene construction, creates scenes that can only be described as “painterly”.
The film also employs the use of symmetry and angles, and are mostly used in scenes depicting the process of social order. Its looming authority is precisely what motivates the central characters, and enrages the underdogs. The cruel incline of the cold mountains crossed by the newly released Jean Valjean remind him of his vulnerability to nature. The assembly lines inside the factory subject the uniformed female workers to united and disciplined production — an ensemble later disrupted by Fantine in pink. The silent crowd of General Lamarque’s funeral procession implies assigned times for the nation to grieve. The soldiers standing sentinel while taking orders from Javert are part of a larger, political killing machine. The largely angular urban planning of the city is simple to navigate, but fails to shield may from an untimely death. Lastly, between what is morally right and what is legal will always exist a perpetual nuance. Unfortunately, Javert fails to see this.
Deviants of this order become miserable, so to speak. By going against the grain, they suffer. Yet, it would be the more organic scenes that would spell the story’s triumphs in the end.
Intrigued by the image of the child, I wanted to see “Les Misérables” as a little girl, but was told it was not for children. It’s true, it really isn’t. But, almost two decades after first seeing the musical’s famous logo — and subsequently viewing it from a distance as a contribution to literature and popular culture — I would finally experience the songs, the emotions, and the tribulations of the characters. (The irony of it taking almost as long as Valjean’s own prison sentence is not lost to me.)
By translating it into a musical film, one may argue that the spirit of song in “Les Misérables” is lost, even if everything was sung live. However, I believe that claim cannot be further from the truth. The differences in the formats are inherent from the moment it was agreed that the 2012 adaptation would be done in film.
I may not have watched the musical myself, but I know that in theatre, the projection of emotion through vocals is primarily used because most of the audience are unable to see the expressions on the actors’ faces. This is because audiences in a musical are not only assigned a seat, but also a single focal point in which they can experience a production. If a viewer is given a seat near stage left, an actor stationed at stage right will always be far away, and vice versa. Even with glasses.
The main difference between theatre and film is the involvement of a camera. With it, the constraint of a single viewing point ceases to exist. The mediation of a camera grants the audience multiple points of view, with thanks it’s ability to zoom, pan, aerial views, and create cinematic angles that no human can easily execute with their eyes from their seat. Because of this, expression becomes more important, and can work alongside the singing. So, pitting either format against the other is, to be frank, insane.
Cast-wise, the selection is refreshing. Hugh Jackman’s theatre background allows him to put on a stunning yet unsurprisingly wonderful performance. Anne Hathaway’s take of Fantine is both breath-taking yet tender, and she is one of the best aspects of the entire film. The combination of Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen is startling, yet not a regretful choice; the comedic chemistry between them is the perfect relief for the largely heavy story. Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, and Samantha Barks are a stellar in musical combat. Amanda Seyfried’s angelic voice and lithe movements suit the precious Cosette, although I feel like I’ve seen her and her doe eyes in way too many films lately. Daniel Huttlestone is an adorable little thing with the acting chops to match. Last, but not least, the addition of Russell Crowe as the gruff Javert is a stark contrast to the chorus of melodic voices, yet he displays a capacity of understanding the character, and manages to deliver.
In a film industry saturated with adaptations, “Les Misérables” is an elegant and emotional re-packaging of wonderful literature. It pushes the boundaries of great filmmaking in its audiovisual delivery. Be prepared to sing, cry, laugh… and dream a dream in time gone by.