Les Misérables

I am a major fan of Les Misérables. I first saw the Cameron Mackintosh musical on Broadway in 1990; I took a day trip to New York while attending a course at Fort Monmouth, NJ. When I returned home, I took my wife to see the touring company production at the National Theatre in DC. I’ve seen it since in Boston, and twice in Houston. I have the original London cast recording, the Complete Symphonic Recording, and the Original French Concept Album. And I have read the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo.

Any dramatic adaptation must take liberties with its source materials, and that is especially true in the case of  a five-volume novel that has entire books talking about the background of individual characters, or the sociology of French convents in the 19th century. I like the musical better than any movie version I have seen (and I’ve seen three or four)–I think it captures the spirit and emotions of the book, and its most important scenes.

So I went in wanting to like the movie. And I did. But I have some major disappointments with decisions made by director Tom Hooper.

First, I’ll note some of the positive points. I loved the casting and performances of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Samantha Barks as Eponine. Each was superb.

I loved some of the visual and verbal additions to the script that help to clarify plot points, such as the inclusion of Marius’ grandfather, and the scene in which Valjean and Cosette fall over the convent wall and find Fauchelevent. Also, the depiction of Gavroche as living in the Elephant of the Bastille (though it omits the two boys–his brothers–he cares for, as well as the fact that they are Thenardiers). And even the addition of the removal of Fantine’s teeth shows that Hooper had his eye not just on the musical, but on Hugo’s novel.

Unfortunately, there were a couple major examples of miscasting. First, I think Russell Crowe just doesn’t succeed as Javert. He doesn’t have the voice, nor does he bring the right attitude. I think this part is best played by someone with a deeper voice, with an edge to it–Philip Quast would have done a much better job. Then there are the Thenardiers. They are clearly described by Hugo: she is a “giant,” and “ogre,” a masculine  and vicious woman who terrorizes her children and is dominated by her husband; he is a small, sickly looking man who is conniving and yet makes himself the friend of all. My favorite actor to play Thenardier would be a toss up between Barry James and Alun Armstrong. Cohen and Carter just don’t fit the characters created by Hugo.

Another misstep: “Master of the House” is a bawdy song, but the St. Nicholas scenes were unnecessary and a distraction. I think it a (sick) attempt by Hooper to make this “a Christmas movie.”

But the things that make this movie are the major scenes and songs–and here I love both the songs as performed and Hooper’s visualization: the introductory scenes leading up to Valjean’s decision to flee parole, Fantine’s fall, “Who Am I?”, “Stars,” “One More Day,” “On My Own,” “A Little Fall of Rain,” “Drink with Me,” “Bring Him Home,” “Red and Black,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

At the end, my eyes were filled with tears as at the end of every other performance. I wanted to sing of redemption and of hope. And that’s what this story is about.