I’d been excited about the transfer of Les Miserables from book to stage, and now to film for a while. I’ve now seen the film and it is the best film I’ve ever seen. I was so pleased that the reality of the characters and life at the time rang true – it was much more raw and disturbing than I’d expected, and, surprisingly untheatrical. The characters bring a truth through song that has not been witnessed before – they are not ‘performing’ – they are living with the reality of the story.
I always thought that the reason why Les Miserables has done so well in the world theatres during its 28 year run is because the story addresses emotions and questions that ‘everyman’ asks at some point. It is set against a severe background of poverty; scenes of which have not gone away in many countries, but even if the poverty aspect was removed, the characters are still like us in their search for forgiveness, purpose, love, recognition and peace.
I could not fault the casting in the film – none of them were sensational – all of them had the vitality and earnestness that was needed for us to relate to the characters. The character of Javert (the police inspector on the trail of Valjean all his life) is the ambiguous character in the story – Javert believes he knows right from wrong but Valjean is a man who rocks Javert’s boat of once steadfast morals. Russell Crowe plays Javert with heartbreaking sensitivity who in the end cannot face the fact that his version of goodness has been turned on its head by one who he thought was ‘bad’. Crowe does brilliantly at showing how Javert grows in doubt:
and the way he sings throughout also matches his outward aim of rightness and smartness but inwardly those defiinitions are challenged. His voice has a pure, clear tone to it and he struggles not with reaching the high notes in ‘Stars’ – as his character does not struggle in condemning Valjean – until Valjean challenges Javert’s moral position. There is a beautiful moment in the film between Gavroche and Javert when the line between rich/poor, old/young and experience/inexperience is crossed. Crowe’s face says it all at that point.
Gavroche, above, captures the innocence and courage of childhood, matched by the leadership and fight for equality by Enjolras, the amazing student leader (Aaron Tweit):
The characters bounce off each other as much on set as off. The issues that connect the characters are the same issues that connect the actors and audience. The character who you could say comes off worst is Eponine, played with great understanding by Samantha Barks.
Her loyalty to Marius is known only to her and she is a catalyst to Valjean becoming aware of Cosette’s love for Marius. I’ve mentioned Valjean but not the actor who plays him – Hugh Jackman is astounding and allows the audience to see his soul.
The gift of singing in the film also allows us to see and hear everything and more about the characters. It is as much about ‘how’ they say something (in song) as ‘what’ they say. What they say is so profound that the genre of song allows the audience to absorb and think about what they say much better than if it was simply said. Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (above in the pink dress in the picture) would not be as real if it was said. Her song allows her to go the extra mile. Tom Hooper has done a magnificent job in directing this film.
One of the most moving moments for fans of Les Miserables like me who’ve known the musical since the beginning, is seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne. Wilkinson was the original Valjean when the stage musical opened at the Barbican, London, and seeing him return as the Bishop – the character who gives Valjean his life back, is layered with meaning. From one Valjean to another. From one generation to another has Victor Hugo’s story lived. And, if viewers think Wilkinson as the Bishop is meaningful, wait until you get to the end of the film and the weight of the story’s meaning, and the actors who’ve made it live for us, is a revelation.