Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables has resonated with readers and viewers for over a century and a half. Even Ayn Rand said that Victor Hugo was her favorite author. Set in the decades following the French Revolution, Les Miserables is the tale of "the wretched ones" for whom the Revolution had meant little. They were still living hand to mouth, still tyrannized by authority and by public opinion; in short, still wretched.
Hugo frames his story as the classic conflict between justice and mercy. As a young man, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His sentence is doubled when he tries to escape. As the story begins, he is finally paroled. But the sentence stays with him; since he must present his papers wherever he goes, he cannot find a job or even lodging.
Inspector Javert represents justice. He believes that a convict can never change, and he keeps a close watch on parolees. When Valjean breaks parole by changing his name in order to get a job, Javert is relentless in his pursuit.
Jean Valjean represents mercy and redemption. He is transformed by a kindness performed on his behalf — perhaps the first kindness he has experienced in his adult life. Because this kindness is shown by a bishop of the church when he deserves only justice, Valjean vows to become like that man of God by emulating his godlike service. Fittingly, the bishop is portrayed in this film by Colm Wilkinson, the Irish tenor with the soaring voice who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London's West End and has played him off and on for 26 years. Onscreen, at least, Jean Valjean has indeed become the man of God.
Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature. Time and again he gives up his own safety, comfort, and freedom for the safety, comfort, and freedom of another. At one point as he prepares to trade his freedom for another’s, he sings, "My soul belongs to God I know; I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone — he gave me strength to journey on." His sacrifices bring him joy, not sadness. In the climax, Valjean learns that "to love another person is to see the face of God."
Half a dozen film versions and a television miniseries have been made over the years, with varying success. Most of them focus on the wretchedness of the characters, not the joy that comes from being anxiously engaged in a good cause. The adaptation that immortalized the book is the 1985 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (original French lyrics), and produced by British theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh. "Les Miz," as it is affectionately known, has been seen by over 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages. It has won nearly 100 international awards.
Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature.
Ironically, the stage version did not win the British Tony for 1985; that prize went to a musical comedy revival of Me and My Girl. The critics were not kind to Les Miz on opening night. But the audiences were more than kind. They were spellbound. I know — I was there at the Barbican during one of the preview performances. I had read Hugo's book, of course, but I had never heard the music. Few people had. Hearing it cold like that, especially the multi-layered "One Day More" that closes the first act, was the most profound experience I have ever had in the theater. I saw it at least a dozen times, taking our London visitors whenever they came to town.
Make room on the shelf, Mr. Mackintosh, because your awards will soon be in triple digits with the triumphant film version of the musical.
Mackintosh is executive producer of the film version, and it shows. He and director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, 2010) wisely decided to make few changes. They avoided the temptation to add unsung dialogue or additional background scenes except as they appear in montage during the songs. Instead, they simply trusted their source material and let the music carry the show. They also took the risk of using the voices as the actors performed them, rather than fixing them up in post-production or dubbing the voices of professional singers, as was done so often in the musicals of the 1950s and 60s (that's Marni Nixon's voice singing as Maria in West Side Story, Eliza inMy Fair Lady, and Anna in The King and I, as well as a slew of others).
The result may not produce as satisfying a movie soundtrack album; the voices in this film are occasionally unbalanced or even off-key. But the film is a richer, more intimate experience than the stage version. Hooper is a genius at eliciting natural emotion from his actors. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the factory worker unfairly cast into the streets by a spurned, lecherous foreman, displays such excruciating agony that it seems almost voyeuristic to watch her sing "I Dreamed a Dream." Similarly, the montage of expositive actions as Valjean sings "Who Am I?" brings a depth to his character not possible in the stage presentation. The entire film is a glorious experience. By contrast, the soundtrack of the recent 25th anniversary sung-through version is pitch perfect, but it lacks the emotional power and passion of this film.
I wasn't thrilled with the casting decisions; when I heard that Hugh Jackman would be playing Valjean and Russell Crowe would be playing Javert, my initial reaction was "right men, wrong parts." Valjean is a big, burly man, capable of lifting a 500-pound cart or carrying a man through the sewers. Crowe would be perfect as Valjean. On the other hand, Javert is tall, dark and slender, just like Hugh Jackman. It's the worst casting decision since Marlon Brando was given the romantic lead as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls while Frank Sinatra was given the supporting role as the lovable lummox, Nathan Detroit. I understand the reasoning; Jackman is a tenor with the Broadway credits to pull off a difficult role, while Crowe, let's just say, is not known for his singing. A masculine Marni Nixon would have been needed for sure.
But under Hooper's skilled direction, Crowe's weakness becomes Javert's strength. As an actor, Crowe is a megastar, confident and sure, but when he sings, there is an uncertainty in his voice and face. This uncharacteristic tentativeness inadvertently reveals the inner struggle of the character. Javert is a powerful representative of the law, confident and sure about the sanctity of justice, but in the face of Valjean's great mercy, Javert's certainty falters. Crowe's uncertainty as a singer serendipitously communicates Javert's uncertainty as an officer of the law. Crowe's imperfection is surprisingly perfect.
This is the best movie musical since the 1960s. Great story, noble hero, glorious music, moving lyrics, and a director who knocks it out of the park. The emotion is always right on the edge of rawness without falling into the maudlin. As one of my friends said, "the right guy at the right time for the right film." Don't miss it.