Title: Les Misérables
Director: Tom Hooper
Genre: Musical, Drama
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Colm Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Format: Color, Widescreen
DVD Format: R1, NTSC
“But remember this my brother, see in this some higher plan, you must use this precious silver, to become an honest man.” — The Bishop
“But the tigers come at night, with their voices soft as thunder, as they tear your hope apart, as they turn your dream to shame. … There are dreams that cannot be, there are storms we cannot weather. I had a dream my life would be, so different from this hell I’m living. So different from what it seemed, now life has killed the dream I dreamed.” — Fantine
“You know nothing of Javier, I was born inside a jail. I was born with scum like you, I am from the gutter, too!” — Javier
“…how your world might be changed in one burst of light, and what was right seems wrong and what was wrong seems right.” — Marius
“But now there’s a higher cause. Who cares about your lonely soul? We strive towards a larger goal, our little lives don’t count at all.” — Enjolras
Les Misérables is a sung musical, meaning that nearly every line in the film is sung, rather than the majority of the film being spoken and acted, only to break for the musical numbers. However, because everyone is always singing everything in the film, the singing quickly becomes part of the reality of the film, and the audience becomes used to it and accepts it. Also, the characters are often singing their hearts out, and many of the best songs in the film are actually soliloquies.
The film is based on the long-running stage musical (which ran in both New York on Broadway, and in London on the West End), which is turn is based on a novel by Victor Hugo. The story though is about redemption, about mercy, about love for one’s child, and about how tiny kindnesses or tiny slights can have vast effects on a person’s life.
The film opens with Jean Valjean and a group of convicts in the rain pulling ropes to right a capsized ship. Inspector Javert looks on, then orders Jean Valjean to bring him the French flag. Valjean does this by lifting the entire broken ship’s mast — a very heavy, long, wooden mast. Javert then gives “Prisoner 24601” his yellow ticket of leave. Jean Valjean is at first excited that he has finally gained his freedom after nineteen years a slave to the law – his crime breaking into a house to steal bread to feed his sister’s starving child. However, he is only placed on parole – ordered from place to place by the French police and military. Jean Valjean soon discovers no one will offer work to a convict, and he can’t even find food or a place to sleep.
Still desperately trying to live, Jean Valjean, drops into a local church, where the bishop (Colm Wilinson, originator of the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway), offers him food and a place to sleep for the night. Yet, in the middle of the night, he awakes and steals the bishop’s silver. He’s immediately caught and brought in front of the bishop. The bishop shocks Jean Valjean by lying for him, confirming his story to the police that he “gave” his silver to him. The bishop then also gives him his silver candlesticks, and dismisses the police. But for his mercy, the bishop demands that Valjean must become a better man.
Valjean goes into the church to contemplate his fate and his future. He ends by tearing up his yellow papers which brand him a convict.
Eight years later, in Montreul, Valjean, now using the name M. LeMer, owns a factory employing hundreds, and is mayor of the town. In his factory, Fantine is one of the female workers. She continues to refuse the advances of the foreman. When she receives a letter, a rival female worker steals it and reads it aloud. Upon learning Fantine has a child, she attacks her. The two fight and Fantine shouts back that the woman has a husband and “something on the side”. Enraged, the woman attacks again. Valjean arrives and is about to deal with the problem – then he sees Javert and goes to his office instead, leaving his foreman to settle matters, though he admonishes him to show mercy. The foreman sacks Fantine, and kicks her out in the cold.
Meanwhile, Valjean meets with Javert who introduces himself, remarks that he’s been noticed as an excellent mayor, and gives him papers introducing himself and his transfer as officer of the law for the town. Valjean is a bit nervous, but accepts him. There’s a shout from the street and Valjean runs outside. A man is trapped under a collapsed cart. Though the cart is quite heavy, Valjean lifts it to free the man and save his life. Javert looks on, suspiciously.
Meanwhile, Fantine struggles to support herself. She sells her jewelry, her hair, her teeth, and finally gives in and sells herself. Fantine’s soliloquy, “I Dreamed a Dream”, tells her story and contrasts the golden summer of her youth with the hell she’s now living. Hathaway’s performance is strong and makes the audience feel sympathetic to her, rather than feel sorry for her. And the performance won her several “Best Supporting Actress” awards. Later, when Fantine is wearing the sleeveless red dress of a prostitute, she’s attacked by a man. When Javier arrives the man claims she attacked him. But Valjean also arrives, and upon learning the woman once worked in his factory, he takes pity on her and takes her to a hospital. He also learns she has a daughter, living with an innkeeper and his wife.
Later, Javert presents himself to Valjean, admonishing himself for making a false report, and telling Valjean that “Prisoner 24601” has been caught, so he apologises for thinking “M. LeMer” was Valjean.
This leaves Valjean in a moral dilemma. He cannot allow another man to go to prison in his place, yet his workers depend on him. In the end, Valjean decides he cannot allow an innocent man to be jailed in his place. He goes to the court, and admits he is “Prisoner 24601”. But then he leaves the court and goes to the hospital to see Fantine. There, he finds Fantine dying. He promises to find and care for her child. She promises her to his care. At the hospital, Javert arrives. They confront each other. Jean Valjean pleads for three days to find, take care of, and make arrangements for Cosette. Javert pretty much says, “Are you kidding?” and draws his sword. Valjean defends himself with a wooden beam and escapes by jumping into the water.
Jean Valjean travels to the inn, and pays the Thénerdiers’ fifteen hundred for their “sacrifice” of keeping Cosette. Madame Thénerdier had been abusive of Cosette, treating her like a slave while spoiling her own daughter, Éponine. M. Thénerdier had cared so little for her – he couldn’t get her name right. Valjean and Cosette leave, taking a horse-drawn couch to Paris. The flight to Paris features the one new song from the film that isn’t in the original musical, “Suddenly, You’re Here”.
Javier, having lost Valjean again, sings “Stars”, his own soliloquy. He’s on a roof, and the song begins with a large, stone eagle behind him. As he sings, he walks on the top of the stone balustrade, seemingly careless of the result if he fell. He swears he will catch Valjean. “Stars” is a beautiful song, and one of my favorites from both the film and the musical.
In 1832 Paris, Valjean and now teenaged Cosette, have made a life for themselves. Times are hard, as the people are suffering. Marius, Enjolras, and a group of students are disgusted with the state of affairs, and try to raise the people in rebellion.
One day, Marius sees Cosette on the street. She and Valjean are handing out alms to the poor. They also run into the Thénerdiers. Meanwhile, Éponine lives in the same rooming house as Marius, and knows that his father is rich. She’s also trapped in the gang of thieves led by her parents, the Thénerdiers. Javier is also in Paris, and still obsessed with catching Jean Valjean.
When Marius arrives in the wine shop, his fellow students tease him about falling in love at first sight with a girl whom he doesn’t even know. But his best friend, Enjolras, is actually angry. As staged in the film, “Red and Black” actually becomes an argument between Marius (who’s just fallen in love and is beginning to re-think things) and Enjolras and the other students, who want to start a revolution. When young Gavroche arrives to tell them the people’s hero, General LeMarque is dead, the students all agree – they will raise the barricades at his funeral.
Cosette gets her turn at a soliloquy, “In My Life”, as she realises she’s also fallen in love at first sight. The song, “In My Life”, transitions from Cosette to Marius, to Éponine, to a duet of Cosette and Marius. That night she and Marius meet in her garden.
The Thénerdiers’ gang plans on robbing Valjean’s house, Éponine stops them by screaming to attract attention, but Valjean thinks Javert has discovered him, and tells Cosette they must leave and move on. Cosette is angry and hurt, as she’s just fallen for Marius. Éponine, realising that Marius will never fall for her, sings her soliloquy, “On My Own”, in the rain.
Everyone then sings, “One Day More”, anticipating the coming battle in the morning.
At General LeMarque’s funeral, the people sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the barricades are raised. The students rush to the barricades. Javier sneaks around to discover what is going on, and wears a French tricolor boutonniere. Javier lies to the students about the army’s plans. Gavroche however, recognizes him, and tells everyone he’s “Inspector Javier”. The students attack Javier who attacks back, and finally he’s at the students mercy as the soldiers advance. Battle breaks out.
Éponine sacrifices herself to save Marius from being shot. She gives Marius Cosette’s letter. Marius gives Gavroche a letter, who gives it to Jean Valjean. Valjean has to figure out what to do, and he decides to go to the barricade. Enjolras gives Javert to Valjean. Javert taunts Valjean to kill him. Valjean sets Javert free with no conditions, he evens offers his address.
As night falls, the students drink wine and sing the melancholy, “Drink with Me”. Valjean also sings, “Bring Him Home”, praying for Marius’ safety, for Cosette’s sake, and sees him as his son. In his prayer, Jean Valjean offers his own life to save Marius and bring him home to Cosette.
The next day, Marius and the students are the only barricade left. The people never rose up, not liking the odds. The rain has ruined their gunpowder. Enjolras, knowing their situation to be hopeless, urges those who wish to, to leave. Gavroche sings one line of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the students stay for a desperate last stand. Gavroche then goes out to get ammunition from the dead bodies before the barricade. He’s shot dead by an French army soldier. One of the older students, presumably his father, is devastated. The soldiers give them the opportunity to give up. Enjolras encourages a last stand.
There’s a last minute battle. One by one the students die. The soldiers bring in cannons to blow-up the barricade. The rest of the students are killed, Enjolras raises his banner, and is shot dead.
Javier sees the death, walking among the row of impossibly young people lying dead in a row on the street. He pins his own medal on Gavroche, and is completely disgusted by the death and waste.
Jean Valjean carries a wounded Marius away through the sewers.
In the sewers, Thénerdier steals from the dead.
Javier and Valjean confront each other. Valjean pleads for mercy for Marius, so he can get him to a doctor. Javier lets Valjean go, then commits suicide by jumping off a dam. Javier’s final soliloquy makes it clear that he can’t stand Valjean’s mercy, that Valjean had saved his life, or that his entire life dedicated to law and order has become such as sham, as so many young children were killed in the rebellion.
Marius is brought to a doctor. Marius sings “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”, a lament for his friends he’s lost, though the film does not use the “ghosts” behind him, used to great effect in the stage musical. Cosette comes to Marius. Marius offers Valjean a home with he and Cosette. Valjean refuses, and explains who he really is. Jean Valjean leaves and goes to a convent, seeking sanctuary.
Cosette and Marius marry. The Thénerdiers arrive to cause trouble, and to bribe Marius, but Marius realises instead that Valjean had saved his life at the barricade. At the convent, Valjean is dying. He hears Fantine’s voice, then she appears. Cosette and Marius arrive and say their final farewells. Fantine leads Jean Valjean to the light. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is reprised as Jean Valjean joins Fantine, Gavroche, Enjolras, and all the other dead characters on the barricade, singing in the sun.
I saw Les Misérables on opening night in 2012, in a packed theater, with people of all ages. I think I started crying during “Red and Black” and I don’t think I really stopped until the end of the film. Every time I started to not cry, the woman next to me started, and before long we were both sobbing again. But I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. I cried when I saw it the second time in the theater. When I bought the DVD, I watched the commentary track first — and still managed to cry while concentrating on Tom Hooper’s description of making the film. Even while taking notes in preparation for this review – I cried during, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The film is that moving and beautiful and stirring. But it’s also a very moral film. By giving his silver to Jean Valjean, the Bishop shows him mercy that he had never seen and completely changes his life. Later, Valjean must sacrifice everything to spare an innocent man mistaken for him, to rescue Fantine (who’s downfall was his own fault – he’d been too wrapped up in his own problems to notice hers) and most importantly to save Cosette. Raising Fantine’s child, not only does he come to love her, but he rescues Marius and gives him to her because he loves her, and knows he must let her go.
Meanwhile, Javert, as played by Russell Crowe, is considerably more sympathetic than in the two stage productions of Les Misérables, I’ve seen. Javert isn’t evil, but he’s overly concerned with fulfilling the letter of the law, without any care to extenuating circumstances. Javert at the beginning of the film, doesn’t care that Valjean stole to feed his sister’s starving children. He honestly believes it’s better to starve and die than to resort to crime to live. When Valjean shows him mercy, letting him go at the barricade, and covering it up with a gunshot directed away from the inspector, Javert cannot understand it, and begins to become unhinged. When he catches Valjean and Marius, and Valjean pleads for mercy – Javert grants it, but decides he cannot live in Valjean’s world. Javert is incapable of seeing the grey of the real world, and only sees black and white. However, whereas such a character is often portrayed as “evil” or “hated” – Crowe gives him depth and makes him understandable and sympathetic.
This is a beautiful film. It’s not to be missed. I highly, highly recommend it.
Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Next Film: Iron Man 3