Do You Hear the People Sing?

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The new film Les Misérables, based on the worldwide musical smash and Victor Hugo’s best-loved novel, is a story of the power grace has to transform and change lives–and the choice we make when faced with forgiveness.

The story of Jean Valjean has been adapted many times, and it is an enduring one because of the grandness of the story and its scope and drama. Convict Jean Valjean is finally paroled after twenty years in hard labor.  Reminded of his state by Inspector Javert, Valjean realizes that even after having paid for his crime–stealing a loaf of bread–he will never be forgiven.  When the Bishop of Digne surprises him with an unbelievable act of charity and grace, Valjean rejects who he has been and embraces the forgiveness offered, forever changing his life and setting him on a lifetime game of cat-and-mouse with the relentless and unmoving Javert.

A huge cast of characters crosses the two men’s paths–Fantine, who falls to a lowly state while trying to protect her only child, Cosette.  Thenardiér, a veteran of Napoleon’s wars who, with his wife, bleeds Fantine dry of her money to support their own daughter, Eponine.  Marius, a son of aristocracy who has fallen in with Enjrolas and other revolutionary-minded students.  Gavroche, a boy living on the streets of Paris as a pickpocket.  Eventually, all of their stories meet up at the failed student uprising of 1832 and a battle in the streets of Paris.  It’s an epic tale, full of chases, secret identities, broken hearts, young love, tragedy, war–everything that makes for a great story.  There’s a reason Hugo’s story has been adapted for theater and film so often since it was first published.

I first encountered what was already billed as “The Musical Sensation” in 1987, after reading an article in Newsweek about the new show that was breaking records in London’s theater scene.  Intrigued enough by what I had read, I picked up a copy of the unabridged edition of Hugo’s novel and was overcome by the depth of storytelling, character development–and some amazing sidelines into French history, social issues, and politics that are mostly left on the sidelines in adaptation.  I bought the London Cast album and fell instantly in love with the sung-through musical, almost operatic in scope, filled with powerful ballads, soaring marches, and amazing performances by the original cast, mostly made up of Shakespearean actors.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been waiting for a film version of Les Misérables for a very long time.

It doesn’t disappoint.

From the opening moment, when instead of a few lone convicts on a dark stage, we see a contingency of convicts struggling to pull a ship into dock in the midst of a rainstorm, it is clear that director Tom Hooper (Oscar winner for The King’s Speech) is going to expand what was only hinted at onstage, giving the music a chance to soar in settings just as big and bold.  Unlike most movie musicals, however, the singing was not dubbed.  As the convicts struggle with the boat, their cry of “Look down” may not be beautifully sung, but it sung with passion and heart that isn’t there when an actor is only lip synching something recorded in a comfortable studio months earlier.

Tom Hooper on the Set of Les Miserables This is also the strength of Hooper’s direction–the bigness of the musical’s songs is met in a scope to match–but the intimacy that is lost in the perfect singing of so many film musicals is gained in the fact that the songs truly seem to spring from the moment, out of the depths of the character’s hearts and emotions.  When Jackman sings Valjean’s “Soliloquy,” where he realizes that God’s grace can pierce his hardened soul and forever alter his life, the break in his voice heightens the emotions that even the great Colm Wilkinson (the original stage Valjean who has a pivotal cameo as the Bishop of Digne) could never portray in a recording the way he did on stage.

Hugh Jackman as Jean ValjeanThere’s a “realness” to the songs that one gets when seeing a musical onstage, where interpretations change based on how the actor is feeling in that given performance.  When Anne Hathaway (in a truly tremendous performance as the heartbreaking Fantine) sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” it’s not a beautiful moment.  But it stops the viewer in their tracks, realizing that she is singing it live as her hair is shorn, her body reduced to ruin, so that when she sings “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living,” you feel it.  It’s one of the most amazing moments in any film this year.

Anne Hathaway as FantineThe performances are all first-rate, with Hugh Jackman deftly carrying the entire film on his shoulders.  His singing is as good as it has always been, as the man who is Wolverine is no stranger to theater.  He also brings great depth to Valjean’s struggle as he realizes that the child who has helped him truly change his life no longer needs him.  Russell Crowe, as the relentless Javert, brings a steely-eyed countenance to the role and surprises with a good, if not great, voice.  His final moments in the film, when he realizes that he cannot reconcile his love of the law with the grace shown to him by Valjean during the climactic battle, is truly powerful, and he sings his version of the “Soliloquy” with equal parts gusto and sadness.

Russell Crowe as JavertThe supporting characters are all well-played, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter doing exactly what you would expect as the dastardly-yet-funny Thenardiérs.  They both shine in roles that seem made for their brand of scenery chewing, and both sing better here than they did in their last musical, Sweeney Todd.  Eddie Redmayne is a wonderful “find” as the student and star-crossed lover, Marius.  Although this is not his first role, it is truly a breakthrough performance and he sings the soaring tenor role quite well.  Also of note are Samantha Barks as Eponine, whose unrequited love for Marius is sung heartbreakingly in “On My Own,” and Aaron Tviet as Enjrolas, the student who leads the ill-fated rebellion.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Eponine
Beautifully filmed, with some unconventional choices (some extreme close-ups during a few of the songs can be disconcerting to some), the movie’s sets and costumes are also first-rate.  The squalor and upheaval of early 19th-century France are conveyed with a vividness that would have made Victor Hugo proud. Yet, it also showcases beautifully the ultimate themes of the novel.

In the big moment before all the stories collide at the barricade, the entire cast sings the song “One Day More,” which is a powerful moment both onstage and in the film.  Every story is about to connect, and they all sing out, “Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store!” This is why, while some today may wish to equate the “Occupy” movement with the students of 1832 and say social awareness was Hugo’s true theme, I would disagree.

For Hugo, the events of 1832, the troubles of “Les Misérables” are but a grand canvas to write and portray the grander theme: man’s salvation, the gift of redemption, and the inability of the law to reconcile itself with grace.  In the soaring songs of Les Misérables, the call isn’t for more government, more programs.  What will truly bring about Hugo’s revolution is when mankind can treat each other the way the Bishop treated Valjean: with surprising grace, unmerited and undeserved.  This is what is sung at the final scene of the film–as all who have died in the course of the story join thousands of other voices who sing

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong
and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing,
say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes!

Les Misérables is more than just perhaps the greatest film musical of all time.  It’s also the most moving and powerful movie–the best picture–of the last year.

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