Friday, January 11, 2013

Beyond the Barricade: A Review of Les Miserables

I am fresh of seeing the film version of Les Miserables. Since it is fresh in my mind, I thought I would jot down some thoughts on the movie, and also on the powerful themes of the story.

What Were You Expecting?
First of all, you need to know what you are getting into if you go to see this movie. It is a film adaptation of the musical based on the book. This means that virtually every line of the movie is sung. I know that this could throw people off. If you have seen the musical, or even heard the songs of the musical, you will not be surprised. My wife and I have seen it and frequently listen to the soundtrack. Because of this, we went in knowing the story, the songs, and even anticipating favorite songs and scenes.

On the whole, the movie succeeds. Tom Hooper directed in such a way that the film adds some good elements that you can't get in a stage production. The sets are great, the musical performances are great, and the themes of the story are upheld. I give the movie an A-. It could have been an A+, but there were some flaws. In fact, almost all the flaws of the movie can be summed up in one word.

Russell Crowe
When I heard that Russell Crowe was cast as Javert, I thought that it sounded like a bad case of miscasting. I was right. Crowe was terrible. He can't really sing, so he almost barked his lines. I kept waiting for him to grow on me. He didn't.
Now, sometimes in a movie a performance is not good. This was worse than "not good." It was outright bad. In my opinion, it reached the point of distraction. He was so wooden during his two major songs that I had to concentrate on the words just to get the theme. I think the movie suffered and the law-grace juxtaposition was not as strong as it could have been. And this was all because Russell Crowe was so, so bad.
It baffles me that in an otherwise well-cast movie, they missed this badly on Javert.
And, on a sidenote, what happened to Russell Crowe?! He started out with L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander. All of these are fantastic movies. Since then, other than a great performance in 3:10 to Yuma, he has starred in a series of stinkers. He has really fallen off. I think the only solution to his career collapse is for him to do a movie together with M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the movie can start off great, and then progressively get worse. The big question, though, is whether the trick ending will save the movie (and their careers) or just flush the whole thing down the drain.
Rant over.

Other Miss-Fires
This one may not have been Russell Crowe's fault, but it does involve him. After the barricade battle, Javert walks past the bodies and sees the corpse of the child Gavroche. He is moved by the brave child's death, so he bends down and pins a medal on him.
Who's idea was this?! Did someone think that Javert needed to be more sympathetic?! He is not a sympathetic character! He is the law. The idea that he would pin a medal on a rebel is unthinkable. Just to assuage myself, I like to think that Russell Crowe demanded that the scene be included, complaining that his character was not likable enough.
Pretty much any bad elements of the movie I just blame on Russell Crowe.
The only other thing that I disliked ended up being resolved. They moved the order of some songs, which made me think that they had edited out my favorite song of the musical: Do You Hear the People Sing? For about ten minutes I was squirming in my seat, really upset. Then they did the song, and its placement was glorious. In retrospect it was a great move. It was the worst and then the best thing in the movie. The next time I see it, it will be exclusively a positive thing.

The Great Elements
The fact that I just ranted about Javert may make you think that the movie was a disappointment. Far from it. The rest of the casting was great. Hugh Jackman really pulled off the part. I was a little nervous because I didn't think he was big and imposing enough. I think they did some creative camera work to make him look bigger than he is. And  Jackman has some pipes. He pulled it off and deserves his Oscar nom.
Anne Hathaway was the standout of the entire movie. Every time she was on camera she owned the scene.
Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were perfectly cast as the Thenardiers. As an aside, this is likely to be the only Sasha Baron Cohen movie that I ever see. He is obviously a very talented man. It is a shame that he typically uses his talents for over-the-top crass movies.
Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras were stand-outs as minor characters. If you have ever seen the musical, you know that Eponine usually steals a couple of scenes. I was surprised, though, that Enjolras was such a memorable character to me. Really well done.

The Best Scenes
5. The Priest and Valjean. The scene when the priest bestows dignity and brotherhood upon Valjean was powerful. Then Hugh Jackman's response and decision to start a new life was beautiful. It was the first scene in the movie to capture my heart.
4. Who Am I? This is the song that Valjean sings when he realizes that someone else is about to go to prison for his crime. He knows that this is his way out, but he finds himself conscience-bound to turn himself in. I thought this was Hugh Jackman's best scene.
3. Do You Hear the People Sing? I already talked about this, but I loved the scene. This is my favorite song of the musical because it captures the longing for a new life when all the wrongs are made right. Tom Hooper placed it at the funeral of Lemarque. It was just spectacular!
2. I Dreamed a Dream. If you have seen any preview of the movie, it probably featured Anne Hathaway/Fantine singing this song, so it may seem overdone. That said, it was a captivating scene that captures the disappointment and disillusion of this poor woman (and of anyone who has experienced a similar plight). Hathaway deserves the Oscar for the emotion and humanity that she brought to the role, and especially to this scene.
1. The Ending. Any nit-pickings that you may have with the film are washed away in the breathtaking finale. It is everything that it should have been. It captures the victory of grace and stirs out hearts with longing for the world "beyond the barricade." Karina and I had to sit and recover for a few minutes before leaving the theater.

The Themes
I was really glad that Tom Hooper did not shy away from the distinctively Christian themes in the book. The scene with the priest was prominent and he frequently displayed crosses during significant scenes.
No movie and no musical can fully bring out Victor Hugo's powerful theme of law and grace. The book is deeply layered. Still, in the film we get exposed to the unrelenting pursuit of the law. Valjean cannot escape Javert. No matter what he does, he is still on the run. No matter how many good deeds he does, the law is still after him. Valjean, on the other hand, constantly gives grace to others (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Javert) in response to the grace that he has been given. Javert's suicide shows the destiny of someone who absolutely refuses to accept grace. He would rather die than be in anyone else's debt. In contrast, Valjean accepts the priest's grace and ends up being a transformed man.
While the film can't fully display the law-grace theme, it does profoundly display the longing for the world "beyond the barricade." The poor keep longing for better days, and the young men fight for the new world for which they long. Despair seems to set in when they fail, and yet the ending allows us a powerful glimpse into the gracious God ushering his people in to the world for which they long.

So, go and see the movie. And read the book. But most of all, take in the reality that God has not asked you to live up to his holiness. Instead he sacrificed his one and only Son in order to give us grace. While we might feel that the law continues to pursue us, God has provided his grace as an end to the law. We can choose to die in our own inferior righteousness, or we can bow the knee and receive the grace that God has given.
 And when we receive God's grace, we are transformed into people who are set free to give that grace to others.


  1. I laid in bed listening to the soundtrack last night and as a result had an interesting revelation when I awoke in the middle of the night.

    I think the idea still holds water in the light of day, but I'm still trying to figure it out.

    Esentially, isn't Thenardier actually one of the most important characters in the story? I always viewed him and his wife as auxiliary to the story, existing only as comic relief.

    But really, think of Thenardier's contrast with Valjean. Thenardier is a thief by trade and a horrible father, and yet life is easy. Valjean selflessly steals one loaf of bread and finds hope and love by becoming a father and life is impossibly hard.

    I think Thenardier significantly magnifies Valjeans story without the viewer ever really thinking about it.

  2. Karina and I were just talking about this. They are the takers, while Valjean is the giver. It is two contrasting reactions to difficulty. I think you are onto something.

  3. And yet Javert dedicates his life to "justice" by chasing down Valjean while the Thenardiers operate a socially acceptable, if not repugnant, institution of taking.

    There seems to be a larger ironic critique of society there too.

  4. Finally went to see this with my daughter-in-law. We loved it, and I think I can thank you for me not hating Russell Crowe in this part. I had really low expectations and he surpassed them.
    Loved the whole movie.

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  6. And why, pray tell me, are the Thenardier's the only characters that have a noticeable accent?