Les Misérables (2012)

I walked into Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables today fully conscious of the fact that I was about to watch a lavishly staged musical, a genre I’ve always been averse to. (Not only was this a musical but one that was also sung-through.) The only reason I wanted to put myself through it was to complete my 2012 roster. But something fascinating happened about halfway through the film that caught me unawares. Anne Hathaway’s alluring face, devoid of most of its beauty and filled with pain, took up about seventy-five percent of the screen at Sathyam Cinemas. She was about to complete her heartbreaking rendition of I Dreamed a Dream… Right at this very instant, I realized I was no longer self-aware that I was watching a musical. The lack of dialogue wasn’t jarring. The actors breaking into songs wasn’t getting on my nerves. I was effectively in the moment. As if that wasn’t enough, what surprised me even more was the realization that this was the only way Les Misérables would’ve worked. Spoken dialogue would’ve been too prosaic for Victor Hugo’s marvelous epic which I haven’t read or seen in its stage incarnations. It needed the poetry of the musical to adequately capture its every emotion.

Consider, for instance, the ease with which the film depicts both sides of the love triangle - that classic staple of the cinema - love and heartbreak within the span of a single song. In In My Life/A Heart Full of Love, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sings about Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) bursting into his life like the music of angels while Eponine (Samantha Barks reprising her role from the stage) agonizes about him being oblivious to her love. Marius then comes face to face with Cosette and they both profess their love while Eponine, who’s responsible for their union, is still in tatters at seeing the love of her life unite with another. The song beautifully intercuts between the pair’s love and Eponine’s agony before completely making way for the latter in the form of the anguish-filled Samantha Barks solo On My Own. All the while, I couldn’t help but marvel at the wonders that only the musical can offer. This same sequence of scenes simply wouldn’t have worked in the traditional format whereas filmmakers are liberated from such rigid conventions in a musical, and as a result, we the viewers get to experience the entire gamut of emotions.

To illustrate this point further, consider another example. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has just seen one of his former labourers Fantine (Anne Hathaway in the role that is going to land her the coveted golden statuette) die right in his arms. Much earlier, he had turned a blind-eye to her screams of anguish whilst being beset by personal strains. Realizing his folly, he gives Fantine his word that he will take care of her young child Cossette (Isabelle Allen) who offers him his only chance at redemption. At this juncture, instead of a dramatic number which is what I was expecting, the movie suddenly took me on a wild ride by breaking into Master of the House courtesy of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). And while the song sequence itself proved to be funny, it also served the purpose of establishing the detest-worthy nature of the Thenardiers. It was not until Valjean had extricated Cosette of her suffering that I got the dramatic and meaningful Hugh Jackman solo Suddenly.

And those aren’t the only instances of the film juggling so many facets so exquisitely. While they are examples at the micro level, the film has so many shifts in tone at the macro level that it would’ve been jarring if it were a literal adaptation. Moreover these shifts in tone are so seamless that you don’t even notice them. Tragedy, pain, loss, grief, anguish, hope, humor, drama, tension, exhilaration, salvation, redemption, Les Misérables has it all. Of course, all of this must hold true of Victor Hugo’s novel as well. I am just musing on how effective this musical translation is in capturing all these vivid emotions from these meticulously etched characters within the span of as little as two and a half hours.

At the center of it all lies Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) transformation from prisoner to protector which forms the overarching plot of Les Misérables’. And it is one for the ages. After having been released from imprisonment on parole, he elects to steal yet again from the Bishop of Digne who offers him food and shelter, only to find himself captured. The Bishop, though, forgives him, and this act of kindness forces him to introspect and changes him forever. (Later, he is presented with the opportunity to exact his vengeance on Javert (Russell Crowe) but chooses to hand him a reprieve, thus completing his transformation.) Valjean’s story is filled with all the classic themes that only epics can offer. (Hugh Jackman’s interpretation of the character would’ve been worthy of the Oscar in any other year, but, alas for him, Daniel Day Lewis’ tour de force in Lincoln means he’s going to have to settle for a lowly nomination.) Les Misérables would’ve been an unqualified success had it been only about the battle between Valjean and Javert, culminating with the former’s redemption and the latter’s comeuppance. That it gives us these wonderful mini-stories piled on top of each other is pure bliss.

Marius, Cosette, and Eponine’s love triangle has probably served as the inspiration for all the romances we’ve seen in the modern era. Fantine’s tragic tale is one of the film’s many highlights, with Anne Hathaway’s performance being truly exceptional. Victor Hugo’s novel is also commended for its portrayal of slavery in 19th century France, and Tom Hooper captures the tragedy of the June Rebellions in excruciating detail. ABC Cafe/Red and Black is inspiring with its lyrics and soaring music. The Final Battle plays, understandably, during the final battle, and there’s something poetic about the way it is staged that makes it seem all the more tragic. Once the initial rebellion is quelled, Marius, the sole survivor, returns to give us the gut-wrenching Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. But the song that takes the cake, without a doubt, is the Epilogue. In true adapted-from-stage fashion, the entire cast returns to give us this closing note which begins with Valjean’s redemption and ends with an exhilarating chorus. The only thing left to do was stand up and applaud. I dutifully obliged.

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