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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Les Miserables" - a lovely movie

[NOTE: This review has spoilers beside the photo of Isabelle Allen as Cosette and beside the photo of Russell Crowe as Javert.]

"Les Miserables" is a beautiful cinematic opera with very few spoken lines and an overload of emotion. The main roles are filled by people who are known more for their acting than their singing. They all sing sweetly (non-operatically), and with fervor. Amazingly, the scenes were filmed as the songs were actually sung; there is no lip-syncing. The movie is unique among Hollywood works in that the word "God" is used in prayer and not in cursing. Faith is a central theme. The film's few flaws should not spoil anyone's enjoyment of the lush melodies and inspiring story. I plan to purchase both the soundtrack on CD and the movie on DVD. I know I'll watch it again, just as I re-view "On the Waterfront" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." I love movies that address what life is really about and how we can prevail against adversity.

My husband, Mike, and I went to see "Les Miserables" on Christmas day. The theatre was packed - we had to sit in one of the front rows. At the end of the film, people clapped. How often do you hear applause in a movie theatre?

Years ago, we saw "Les Miserables" as a stage play. We met a woman in line. She said, "This is my 28th time seeing it." I asked why. She explained that she had seen the play all over the county - like Dead Heads following the Grateful Dead, I guess, or Phish fans following Phish, I guess, 'cept with fewer drugs.

Why did the woman travel all over the country to see "Les Mis?" She explained, "I love the play because it's about the best in people. It's about mercy and redemption."

She was right. The story, published in 1862 by Victor Hugo, centers on an ex-convict named Jean Valjean who has become embittered about life. He'd been sent to prison after he was caught stealing bread to feed his sister's child. His imprisonment stretched to 19 years of hard labor.

Out of prison, he is denied a job and lodging because his papers indicate that he is an ex-con. He steals silver from a bishop who gave him shelter. When he is caught, the bishop defends Jean, telling the police that he had given Jean the silver as a gift.

When the cops leave, the bishop tells Jean that he must keep the silver and use it to change his life. Jean's hard heart is softened by the bishop's mercy. For the rest of his life, he gives himself to others. He saves people again and again.

I can't resist a story of mercy and redemption. But "Les Miserables" is more that that. It is truly a story of misery. We see people who are trapped by social customs that create poverty and prejudice.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine
Anne Hathaway plays Fantine, a woman who is thrown out of her factory job because she has borne a child out of wedlock. She sells her hair and her teeth and becomes a prostitute. She sings "I Dreamed a Dream" as she weeps for what might have been. She had given her heart to the young man who is the father of her child, but he deserted them both.

This is where my dear husband began weeping, and he didn't stop for most of the movie. He was not alone. I joined him from time to time, and there was a lot of nose-blowing going on around us.

Fantine's song was particularly poignant for me because I've come to know many single mothers in the Greater Milwaukee area, through a charity I founded in 1982, HOPE Network. I can promise you that the same prejudices against single mothers are alive and well today. People say, "Didn't they ever hear about birth control?" "I can understand one child, but another one? There's no excuse for that." And on and on.

Yup, sometimes women get themselves into jams - and sometimes the jams are forced upon them. But as far as I'm concerned, if a child is involved, it is time for mercy.

Mercy is what we see over and over in "Les Miserables."

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, with the bishop's  
silver candlesticks - symbols of faith that pop up
throughout the movie.

Jean Valjean knows what suffering is, and his heart is broken for all those who suffer. Mercy has been shown to him, so he shows mercy to Fantine and to others who are miserable. Hugh Jackman as Jean reaches impossibly high notes in "Bring Him Home," a moving cinematic prayer. He sings, "If I die, let me die - let him live." He is willing to give the ultimate: his own life for another.

Isabelle Allen as Cosette
After Fantine dies, Jean finds Fantine's child, Cosette, who is treated like a slave by her caregivers. Cosette, like Fantine, is miserable. She sings "There is a Castle on a Cloud" and our hearts break (more tears from the audience). We know it's true that innocent children go into their own dreams (or dissociate) to escape abuse. Jean rescues Cosette and raises her as his own child.

Samantha Barks as Eponine

Eponine is another miserable character, played by Samantha Barks. Unrequited love, they say, is a universal pain. She is in love with Marius who is in love with the grown-up Cosette. With heartbreaking intensity, Eponine sings "On My Own" and "A Heart Full of Love."

Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert
Russell Crowe plays Inspector Javert, who is miserable in his own way. Javert is an uptight cop. He'd been born in prison. He hunts Jean Valjean for decades. When Jean saves Javert from being murdered by young student revolutionaries, Javert's cold heart is cracked. Later, when Javert finally gets his chance to capture Jean, he lets the ex-con go free. But in his own mind, he can't reconcile his act of mercy with his devotion to duty. He kills himself.

As I mentioned, the movie has some flaws:

1. Hugh Jackman's voice gets screechy occasionally (I forgive him this for the incredible high notes he hits and the intensity of his emotion while singing).
2. The butterfly in the foreground of the garden scene creates an overload of schmaltz that detracts from the lovely tension (Eponine's unrequited love) of the moment.
3. The movie makers should have made Anne Hathaway (Fantine)   look more ill before she suddenly dies.
4. The movie makers should have made Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) look older before he suddenly dies.
5. The tiny barricade erected by the revolutionary students differs from the giant barricade shown at the end of the movie. This is, I guess, a subtle way of letting viewers know that eventually the people of Paris support the revolution that the students die for during their little June rebellion. However, showing the large barricade is a bit too subtle and probably confusing to viewers.

Overall, the movie is a marvelous experience. An overload of emotion. You have to be ready for it.

Teacher Gail's Grade: A+

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, and Don't Worry Baby, all available from

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