By Roger Thomas for the SNAP
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 —
I should begin by stating that I have seen “Les Mis” multiple times on the stage. I think when one is familiar with the source material, whether it is a book, a stage play or whatever, this affects how one views a film. In my case, I know the story of Jean Valjean backwards, forwards and sideways.
It is a wonderful story. A man seeks to redeem his life after a crime (albeit a small crime), a term in prison and a bit of grace from a bishop. And that is the heart of the story, the balance of law versus grace. The Christian faith has always struggled with finding that balance. Most people tend to lean one direction or the other. Our current national political situation is proof of this. “Les Miserables,” as well as any story, demonstrates the tragedy that can occur when legalism trumps grace. The character Javert is a man who seeks justice always, even when perhaps grace would provide the more just alternative.
But I do not write today to praise Victor Hugo’s story. It is a fine one filled with meaning. However, I am writing to critique the new film version.
First, it is the best film adaptation of “Les Mis” that I have ever seen. I have seen quite a few, none of which are musicals except the new version. The most recent one starred Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. That version lacked passion completely.
This new version, with all the music and spectacle has a great deal of passion and emotion. Hugh Jackman gives it his all as Jean Valjean. Russell Crowe, perhaps the weakest singer in the cast, captures the emotional struggle of Javert, seeking to do the right thing as the law defines it but ultimately questioning his own decisions.
Then there is Anne Hathaway as Fantine (I like the character of Fantine so much I named a cat after her 15 years ago. She has since passed but I still have Fantine’s granddaughter who is a wonderful calico cat).
Hathaway is by far the best thing about this version of “Les Mis.” When she cries, the audience cries with her. And when she sings, the audience cries ever more. She is currently the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress. Some say her screen time is too short, but Beatrice Straight had one good scene in “Network” and Judi Dench was on screen about eight minutes in “Shakespeare in Love” and they both won Oscars for their films respectively. Hathaway could too, and I personally hope this is her year.
There is more to like about “Les Mis.” The music, of course, is phenomenal, though I did not find the one new song, “Suddenly,” (which was not in the stage production) to be overly impressive. The sets and costumes are good, but there have been a lot of spectacular productions this year and nothing really singles out this film. It is a well-made entertaining spectacle.
Which brings me back to my opening remarks. I know this story. I know the stage musical. I knew what was going to happen in the movie, almost every line, note and action. For me, the joy of discovery really did not exist as I watched the film. My greatest surprise was actually how much I was touched by Hathaway’s one great scene.
So, “Les Miserables” is not one of my favorite films of 2012. It will probably get a Best Picture Nomination. It has been getting quite a bit of “awards attention.” And it is a good film just not a great one.
However, if you are one of the ones who has never experienced the story of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and Cosette, I urge you to go. Your introduction to this story may be one of the best experiences you have had at the cinema in quite a while.