Near the end of “Les Miserables,” Eddie Redmayne, his face filling up the screen, sheds a tear as he sings:
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more…
This moment represents everything that is right about the movie – and at the same time underscores what I have never liked about the musical.
Redmayne, whom I first noticed as the son of CIA agent Matt Damon in “The Good Shepherd” and impressed me in his Broadway debut two years ago as artist Mark Rothko’s apprentice in the John Logan play “Red,” is a revelation as Marius. Redmayne invests the character, revolutionary student and lover of the grown-up Cosette, with passion and beauty (nobody will suffer from his close-ups). But, as it turns out, the actor can also really sing. His silky and robust rendition of the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is one of the two moments in the two and a half hour film that made me cry just like the characters. The other also involved Redmayne — during “A Little Fall of Rain,” the death of Eponine, portrayed by Samantha Barks, whose voice is exquisitely pure and moving.
But when Marius sings “don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for,” my response was: Don’t ask me either! The musical adapters of Victor Hugo’s great novel left that out.
Hugo’s nineteenth century novel is a sprawling, complex work that centers on the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, then hounded by Javert, his prison guard and later a policeman, for breaking his parole. Like Charles Dickens, Hugo wrote “Les Miserables” as a blazing call to action against the injustices of the age. Hugo’s first words in the novel: “So long as the three great problems of the century – the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light – are unsolved…books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”
In condensing Hugo’s mammoth, pointed novel into a pseudo-operatic Broadway musical a century later, composer and librettist Claude-Michel Schönberg with co-librettist Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer pumped up the volume and played down the substance. The result felt so dumbed-down emotionally manipulative to me that when Gavroche, the pint-sized street urchin waving the flag before the parapet in support of the cause (what cause, they don’t precisely say), is shot multiple times and collapses dead, I shook my head and laughed.
That I found so much of Les Miz laughable or insufferable apparently puts me in the minority of the 60 million people who reportedly have seen a stage production of Les Miserables somewhere in the world. My hope is that what made Les Miz such a hit were the many tuneful songs, whose melodies somehow survived the bang-you-on-the-head 1980’s power-amp orchestrations.
Gavroche is killed in the movie, too, though at least he isn’t waving the flag, and it somehow seems less manipulative — until they add a scene later of a dead, open-eyed Gavroche lying atop a pile of bodies. There are, in other words, laughably manipulative moments in the movie too, but some also make you cry.
Some of the tuneful songs get their due. As you may have heard, all the performers sing “live” instead of lip-synching, which is apparently a terrific innovation, albeit one that was standard in movie musicals until a few decades ago. This doesn’t help Russell Crowe’s Javert very much — let’s just say he’s the one who should be named Samantha Barks. But it is most powerful when Anne Hathaway, who plays beautiful unwed mother Fantine, is kicked out of her job at the factory after resisting the foreman’s advances, then set upon by the miserable outcasts of nineteenth century France, who cut off all her beautiful hair, extract her teeth (to sell on the open market) and rape her….leading her to sing “I Dreamed A Dream.” The brutality gives the song a context that even Susan Boyle can’t match, even though that single song brought her from decades of obscurity and frumpiness into overnight superstardom. That song will elevate Hathaway too, though she is already a star and was surely never frumpy.
Perhaps taking its cue from the musical, the movie too pumps up the volume – literally, and visually. The camera pans stunning vistas – taking in mountain ranges and huge hulking ships manned by dozens of grimy, wave-soaked prisoners with bad haircuts. But it is most noticeable for its nearly clinical and relentless close-ups. Some of these work; some of them feel like an assault. “Les Miserables” is most of the time over-the-top and in your face. When Hugh Jackman as Valjean drags the injured Marius through the sewers, and we see a really close up close-up of his face dripping with mud (at least I hoped it was mud), it was nearly a parody of a minstrel show. This is a Grandiose Guignol of a movie. But there are enough credible performances by A-list actors – yes, the always reliable Hugh Jackman – and some surprisingly lovely, moving performances by relative newcomers — besides Redmayne and Barks, let me put in a word for the always swoonable Aaron Tveit as Marius’s revolutionary brother Enjolras – to please the musical’s fans, and, for better or for worse, make some new ones.
A Universal (in U.S./U.K.) release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Working Title Films/Cameron Mackintosh production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Mackintosh. Executive producers, Angela Morrison, Liza Chasin, Nicholas Allott, F. Richard Pappas. Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay, William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schoenberg, Herbert Kretzmer, based on Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boublil & Schoenberg’s original stage musical “Les Miserables,” from the novel by Victor Hugo.
Jean Valjean – Hugh Jackman
Javert – Russell Crowe
Fantine – Anne Hathaway
Cosette – Amanda Seyfried
Marius – Eddie Redmayne
Madame Thenardier – Helena Bonham Carter
Thenardier – Sacha Baron Cohen
Eponine – Samantha Barks
Enjolras – Aaron Tveit