Spoiler Alert: I’d like to discuss how Les Misérables was adapted for the screen, which will include discussing plot lines, so if you have not seen the musical, or listened to the cast album, or read the book, or watched a previous filmed version of the story (or the 25th Anniversary concert that is shown by PBS during every pledge drive these days) you should stop reading now, get in your car, and drive to the theater where the movie is playing. Make sure you bring tissues with you.
It’s hard to think of someone not acquainted with the story. “Les Misérables” has been in print since 1862. (It is one of the longest novels ever written; at 560,000 words, it’s just a bit shorter than “War and Peace.”) The story has been filmed for the big and small screens at least once a decade since movies were first made. Since its London premiere in 1985, the musical version has played around the world – and it’s still running in London after 27 years.
It is the masterpiece of Victor Hugo, who’s as important to French literature as his contemporary Charles Dickens is to English literature. Hugo’s work is even more diverse, though. Besides novels he was (and still is) beloved in France for his poetry, and he was a prolific dramatist. One of his plays, “Le Roi s’amuse,” was used by Verdi as the basis for his classic opera, “Rigoletto.” Hugo’s “Notre Dame du Paris,” which became “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” when translated into English, is a classic itself, and has been filmed nearly as often.
Hugo was also deeply involved in politics. He helped Prince Louis-Napoleon become president of France in 1848, but when the president became authoritarian and dictatorial, Hugo broke with him. After the coup d’etat that put Napoleon III in charge of the 2nd Republic, Hugo went into exile, living mostly on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey until Napoleon III’s fall in 1870. It was during the exile that Hugo completed “Les Misérables,” which he’d begun in 1845. It spans the years 1789 to 1832 and covers the broad spectrum of French life during those years, even including a chapter on the battle of Waterloo.
The musical did an excellent job of putting the novel on stage by focusing on the main story plot, although it required a marathon length of three hours. But a musical is designed to communicate to an auditorium filled with people. Subtlety is lost in the bravura of the format. With movies, the camera can look into an actor’s eyes to see the character within. Screenwriter William Nicholson has experience with stage-to-screen adaptions. He wrote the Tony-nominated play “Shadowlands” and did the screenplay for its movie version, and he adapted the musical “Sarafina!” for the screen. In his script for Les Misérables, he’s put in nuances from the book that couldn’t be communicated on stage. It makes this the most faithful adaptation of the book out of the many that have been done over the years.
Director Tom Hooper won the Best Direction Oscar two years ago for another period piece: The King’s Speech. He’d worked in the era of Les Mis before when he did the four-part series John Adams for HBO. Musicals are not an easy genre, but he carries it off beautifully. His decision to have the parts sung live, accompanied by a pianist heard through an earphone, allows the actors to integrate the emotions of their performances into the music. Normally they’re lip-synching to recordings made months before the filming. It refreshes the musical.
The story is divided into three sections. In the first, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) receives his parole after serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. As his jailer Javert (Russell Crowe) points out, he’s not free; he must report to the authorities and carry a yellow passport that will forever brand him a criminal. Valjean almost slips into a life of crime except for an act of mercy by a Bishop (Colm Wilkinson). This causes Valjean to rip up the yellow passport and recreate himself.
Those familiar with the musical will be surprised at the first line of dialogue in the movie – simply because there is dialogue. The musical was operatic with all the parts sung. With the intimacy of the camera, this change was both necessary and helpful. Jackman is a musical theater veteran, having done “The Boy From Oz” on Broadway, and is wonderful in the role of Valjean. Valjean’s soliloquy “What Have I Done,” which ends the section, begins at a whisper then rises to a roaring climax.
In this section, Crowe’s voice seems light, though he communicates the physical bearing of Javert. While he’s a newcomer to musicals, he has had his own band “30 Odd Foot of Grunts” in Australia for years. A gift to audiences is casting Wilkinson as the Bishop. He originated the role of Valjean both in London’s West End and on Broadway, where he stopped the show with “Bring Him Home.” Decades on, his voice is just as clear and strong.
Section Two takes place several years later in the town of Montreuil. Valjean has become the factory owner and mayor of the town, M. Madeleine. A factory employee, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is caught up in an argument when the other factory workers discover she’s hiding a daughter, the result of an affair with a young student who then abandoned her. Here’s one place where the movie incorporates more of the book, clarifying the story. In the original musical, Valjean walks in on the argument and tells the foreman to sort things out with patience. Instead the man, who’s lusted after Fantine, sacks her. In the movie we see Valjean is distracted to see Javert, the town’s new police chief, waiting in his office. Javert doesn’t recognize Valjean, but his suspicions are raised when Valjean saves a man from being crushed by a cart. Javert’s only seen such strength before in the prisoner, now fugitive, Valjean.
Hooper and the creative team switched the order of the songs “Lovely Ladies” and “I Dreamed A Dream,” putting “Ladies” first. It’s boisterous and a stark contrast as Fantine falls to the depths of society as she tries to still provide for her daughter, selling a prized locket, then her hair, and finally a tooth. The tooth scene wasn’t in the original musical, but is in the book. Finally she lands in prostitution. When Hathaway sings “I Dreamed A Dream” after Fantine’s first customer, it’s no longer a beautiful song of lost dreams; it’s a raw nerve ending, filled with rage as tears flow down her cheeks.
Later Fantine is seen by Valjean fighting off an abusive customer. Javert wants to arrest Fantine, but Valjean intercedes, only to be stunned when Fantine rips into him for being responsible for her fall. He takes the sick Fantine to a hospital and learns her daughter is in a small town being cared for by the innkeeper Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham-Carter). Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he’ll care for Cosette, though at the same time he’s had to confess his true identity to save a man, thought to be him, from being thrown into prison.
Hooper stages “Confrontation” as an actual duel between Valjean and Javert, an excellent choice that heightens the tension. It’s here that Crowe’s singing strengthens to match Jackman. That strength continues in his solo “Stars,” which Hooper films with Javert walking along the parapet of police headquarters in Paris, creating a visual that encapsulates Javert’s legalism and judgment on those who “fall from grace.”
The Thenardiers were comedic relief in the stage version, but Hooper cuts down on their buffoonery during the song “Master of the House.” With the camera he can show their thievery in ways that could only be suggested on stage, though some may wish the kitchen part of the song was a little less graphic. (One interesting bit of trivia is that Bonham-Carter’s family tree includes one of Hugo’s main political adversaries.) With less cartoonish glee here, it increases the threatening nature of the characters later in the story. We briefly see their daughter Eponine as a child.
Young Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, is played by Isabelle Allen, making her acting debut. She looks like she stepped out of the original illustration of Cosette that was used in the musical’s marquee. Valjean and Cosette’s escape from Javert is another case where more of the book has been added into the musical.
Section Three jumps forward to 1832. Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) catches the eye of the student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who’s immediately smitten by her – and she by him. To find her, Marius turns to his friend, the now-grown Eponine (Samantha Barks). Valjean has a run-in with the Thenardiers as well as with Javert, who is now assigned to Paris. He realizes he and Cosette won’t be safe until they leave France. Marius meets Cosette in the garden of Valjean’s house, where they pledge their love in “A Heart Full Of Love” while Eponine mourns her unrequited love of Marius. Thenardier and his gang arrives after Marius leaves, planning to rob Valjean, but are foiled when Eponine screams a warning. Valjean fears it’s Javert looking for him, and moves Cosette to another apartment for safety until they can leave for England. Cosette leaves a note at the fence for Marius, but it’s intercepted by Eponine.
Seyfried has come a long way from her ditzy first movie role in Mean Girls. She’s sung before, in Mamma Mia!, but the role of Cosette requires a pure soprano voice that she nails. Eddie Redmayne came to prominence as the male lead in last year’s My Week With Marilyn, holding his own with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench. Marius isn’t an easy role, having to convincingly portray love that blossoms with Romeo speed, but he carries it off.
The sparkling gem of the movie is Samantha Barks, making her film debut. She’d done Eponine on stage in London and sang it for the 25th anniversary concert, but it’s not always easy to make the transition to film from stage. Barks does it seamlessly. Moving up “On My Own” to right after she foils her father’s robbery highlights Eponine’s conflicted love of Marius as well as her isolation.
Another shining role is Gavroche, played by Daniel Huddlestone. He’s also making his film debut, after doing a supporting role in “Oliver” in London West End recently. The role’s always done with a thick Cockney accent that he does beautifully, and his singing of “Look Down” and “Little People” is a delight.
Marius is a member of a student league that is incensed by the injustices of society. Under the leadership of Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt), they prepare a rebellion, hoping that their actions will cause a wholesale uprising. Here one weakness to the adaptation becomes clear. There are a couple of times, such as during “Do You Hear The People Sing,” when the music is restrained, losing the crescendos of the stage version and the cast recordings. It weakens the role of Enjolras, so it’s not the star-maker it was on stage. That said, “One Day More” works even better on film since it cuts between the characters, rather than having them all come together to sing.
Eve Stewart, the production designer, assisted by the set decoration and art direction teams, has done an excellent job throughout the movie, even with London standing in for Paris. The barricade in the narrow streets fills out the musical’s bare staging, while the later scene in the Paris sewers drives home the reality of what Hugo wrote, where in the stage version the scene was rather antiseptic.
Eponine takes a bullet meant for Marius. As she lays dying, she finally gives him the note left by Cosette, and Marius sends Gavroche to Cosette with a final letter, confessing his love as he prepares to die. Valjean intercepts the letter and determines to try to save Marius for Cosette. He makes his way to the barricade where he comes face to face again with Javert, who had tried to infiltrate the students but was identified by Gavroche. In an act of mercy that Javert can’t understand, Valjean releases him.
I’m afraid I will always hear “Bring Him Home” in Colm Wilkinson’s voice, having seen the original cast on stage in London back in 1986, but Jackman comes close to matching it with his rendition. What the movie brings out clearly is the tragedy of the students’ sacrifice, starting with Gavroche’s death and flowing through the destruction of the barricade and Enjolras’s death.
Hooper opens up the scene with the filming, though he still manages the iconic image of Enjolras at the end. He also uses a silent moment of Javert looking at the dead, including Gavroche, to make the policeman’s suicide understandable. On stage, his jump from the bridge is suggested by the use of a strobe light and sound, but in the movie the scene is played to its full operatic potential.
Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” matches the power of the stage version without resorting to the ghostly images of the fallen. Hooper gives us a satisfying resolution for the Thenardiers. They crash Marius’s wedding to Cosette, trying to extort money with information about Valjean, but Marius has them thrown out. “Beggar At The Feast” turns from a wink at their comedy to a final payment for their treachery.
Hooper foreshadows Valjean’s death, as the wear of the years finally takes its toll. If you haven’t been in tears before, you will be at “Finale,” with its climatic reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing.” Film allows for a much broader canvas on which to paint this scene, and Hooper does it beautifully. He may not be nominated for an Oscar – he was shut out of the Golden Globes – but it’s a sterling accomplishment to bring a beloved musical to the screen and make it even better.
Some reviews of the movie have been savage, such as Entertainment Weekly grading it a C. However, EW readers gave the movie an A-. As the song said, this is a time to “hear the people sing” its praises.