Spoiler alert: everyone is miserable.
When I was in the tenth grade, my high school put on a performance of Les Misérables. It was a crazy time in my life. I was a teenager, trying to learn what the hell to do about boys, trying to succeed in school, trying to make new friends, trying to figure out who I was, and basically kind of just failing at everything. The few friends I did have, however, were remarkable women for whom I have nothing but love and respect, and most of us are still friends to this day. And together we entered that colossal time-sucking adventure that is trying to put on a musical.
“Why am I telling you this?” you may ask. I am telling you this, you darling, somewhat rude reader, so that you will understand my full meaning—well, most of it, anyway, as you can’t exactly go jamming your head into a Pensieve full of my memories and I wouldn’t let you anyway—when I tell you that I have had a soft spot in my heart for Les Mis for a long time.
I saw the film with Liam Neeson, which, although a fine film starring an exceptional actor, wasn’t a musical. And even though the book definitely wasn’t a musical, either, I wanted to see a lot of British people pretending to be French people and singing about how miserable they all are. Which is why I had a fangasm when I discovered that the musical I had long desired was in pre-production. And I have practically lived on the Internet ever since.
So if you keep all this in mind, you may understand a fraction of my excitement when I went to see Les Mis on Boxing Day. I will now recount to you my impressions of the story.
Hang on, this gets complicated. So a prisoner named Jean Valjean is released from prison, where he was stuck for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. After stealing from a priest and breaking his parole (ironically, to become a better man), he becomes the mayor of some tiny town I can’t remember the name of. Through his carelessness, a single mother named Fantine is forced to prostitute herself to take care of her child, who is staying with an innkeeper and his wife. Fantine dies from a combination of TB and STDs (probably), and Valjean vows to take care of her child, Cosette, which he does after basically buying her off the corrupt inkeepers (which is especially creepy given that he might’ve been a pedo).
Ten years later, the Students’ Revolution is beginning, and Marius, one of the rebels, thinks Cosette is mad hot and he falls in love with her. His friend, Eponine, is super into him, but puts aside her own feelings to help these crazy kids be together. She is later shot for her efforts. Somehow or other, everyone ends up dead at the barricade except Valjean, Marius, Cosette, and Javert, who has been chasing Valjean for ten years and finally decides to pitch himself into the Seine. Marius and Cosette get married and Valjean dies, and he is escorted to heaven by Fantine, having redeemed himself in the eyes of God.
I’m not gonna lie; the beginning was a little shaky. The transition from prison to long weeks of travel to the bishop’s house could have been a bit slower, just so it wouldn’t have felt as rushed. Valjean had been in prison for nearly twenty years, and it would have been nice to feel a little of that despair.
That being said, the story itself was incredible. I already knew it off by heart, of course, but it was a nice surprise that Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech, which was also pretty spectac) had rearranged some of the songs and even some of the lyrics for better clarity of story. It’s usually pretty hard to follow, but this time I got more out of the story because one thing just naturally led to another. And the songs… the songs, you guys. They made a big deal about how everything was sung live, and you could tell because there was such a ridiculous amount of passion in what they were singing. That entire movie was one long eargasm, so it was a good thing I was sitting in the back row where nobody could see me.
For example, Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream.” Thanks to Susan Boyle, everyone knows that song. But this was a thousand times more powerful, because it was literally four and a half minutes of Anne singing to herself in the dark. I kept expecting her to get up and go to the window and look out at the world, or at the very least walk back to the docks. But she didn’t. Having just had sex with a complete stranger to get a little money for her daughter, she sits alone, in a darkened ship’s cabin, singing about how everything she wanted out of life was taken away from her. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried for her.
Skipping ahead to the second half of the film, wherein everyone dies, the first thing I noticed about the barricade scenes was the random crap that actually made up the barricade. People pitched tables, chairs, beds, barrels, and what have you out of their windows. This was assembled into the wall that would keep the fighters safe, and at the very front of that wall was a coffin. I already knew how the story ended, and the presence of that coffin was incredibly saddening for me.
Once everyone was dead, I was very touched by something Tom Hooper added that wasn’t in the original story: Javert removing a medal from his uniform and pinning it to the chest of the street urchin, Gavroche. Even then, even when children died every day from poor living conditions and starvation and straight-up murder, this child affected the lives of everyone who came in contact with him through his fighting spirit.
When Javert killed himself, I was expecting a dignified, graceful plunge into the river, which is apparently made into a series of levels by a concrete base. But when he fell, he landed on one of these concrete sections, shattering his spine with a very audible crunch. And his body was washed away.
As for the end of the film, I loved how Fantine took Valjean to heaven (and I’m glad Eponine wasn’t there like in the original story, because she and Valjean barely even met) and how they ended up at the barricade. But this barricade was high, and it was long, and it was strong, and it was manned by a multitude of people who valued freedom above all else. And that part was saddening for me, because it made me wonder what would have happened if Paris hadn’t been afraid, if people had decided to rise up and fight for what they wanted.
Hugh Jackman made an excellent Valjean, regardless of what anyone else might think. He had a presence about him that spoke to Valjean’s criminal past while illustrating his desire to be a genuinely good man. He had good chemistry with Russell Crowe’s Javert, too, which always helps. I don’t understand why more people don’t like Crowe’s performance, because it was raw and emotional and you actually got a sense of who he was. I think I like Geoffrey Rush’s Javert better, but Crowe was a damn fine choice.
As for Fantine, even though she was only around for part of the movie, her presence could be felt until the end. You might as well know that I have a colossal girl-crush on Anne Hathaway and that she was the one person I was most looking forward to seeing. Fantine had that air of purity about her, and even when she was brought as low as she could possibly be, she never lost that.
I feel like Amanda Seyfried did a good job with a depthless character. Cosette basically sits around and lets things happen to her, never standing up for herself, but Seyfried turned that into a kind of blissful innocence, that same purity of spirit that Fantine had. Though I still don’t get the whole “falling-in-love-in-a-day” thing, it wasn’t hard to see why Marius loved her.
Okay. Marius. You guys. I kept elbowing my little sister while we were watching, because he had all these little moments where he was just unbearably sweet. That’s why it’s so heartrending after his friends have all died and he’s alone in the ABC Cafe, singing “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.” I also found it interesting how he has rich relatives in this story, which was a cool plot point because Marius had to give up his family for what he believed in. Also, his freckles are a thing of intense beauty.
I cannot even tell you how much I adored the Thenardiers. They were scheming, conniving, ruthless, amoral, and all-around terrible people, and I loved every second of it. And Eponine, their daughter—yes, that’s the same Eponine who’s in love with Marius, which is super complicated because she and Cosette grew up together—was an underrated hero. I’m really glad that Lea Michelle didn’t get the part, because she would have ruined the film and I wouldn’t have been able to see it. Eponine was a street rat and she knew it, and she was flawed in a lot of ways, but she loved Marius enough to want him to be happy, no matter what it cost her. And I loved her for that.
All in all, this was a grand, sweeping, beautiful film that drew me in and made me care about the characters even more than I did before. But the one thing that impressed upon me most was the sense of brutality. This story is literally called “The Miserables,” because everyone is really freaking miserable from start to finish. They’re just trying to survive in a world that’s too big and scary for them, and that’s always going to be hard. But for all that it was so brutal, the film wasn’t graphic. In the scene where Fantine is having sex with the sailor, I was really, really hoping that there wouldn’t be any nudity, and not just because my little sister was on one side of me and my mother on the other. It was because that scene would have been ruined by resorting to gratuitous skin-showing. So it was that much more powerful when you just see silently Fantine crying while it’s happening, because there is nothing sexual about the scene; it’s just plain brutal, and like everything else in this film, it broke my heart.
This is a story that has stood the test of time, and only gets better with each new iteration. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to say Les Misérables is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and Tom Hooper, wherever you are right now, thank you for giving this to me. It was well worth the entire theatre’s standing ovation.
Final Grade: A+
- I was impressed by all the flag waving. According to the guys who had to do that in our stage performance, it’s really freaking hard.
- The Thenardiers: “Let’s not haggle for darling Collette.” “Cosette.” “Cosette!”
- Valjean reading the letter from Marius to Cosette was hilarious. He might as well have been saying, “Cosette has a boyfriend?! Everything has changed! I must meet this boy and threaten him with my pistol at once!”
- Okay, seriously. This is France. Why is everyone except Monsieur Thenardier British? That is all.