Welcome once again to the Midlife Crisis Crossover Request Line, in which recommendations from MCC fans send me reading, viewing, and reviewing assorted art and art-like objects, either because they want a proxy to evaluate the damage, or because my life won’t be complete without seeing them. Today’s suggestion came from Niki, one of MCC’s most dedicated fellow Bunheads fans. (Believe it or not, I hadn’t forgotten!)
Today’s subject: The world-famous Les Miserables, the mammoth French novel turned immortal Broadway play turned Hollywood film (not for its first time), today nominated for twelve Academy Awards. Niki’s original suggestion was for any version of the tale, but for some reason our local big-box stores have yet to be flooded with copies of the previous Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush version. The touring version of the musical performed in Indianapolis at some point, but that was before I received the suggestion. Blame the timing.
What I knew beforehand: It’s a big, famous book. More people have probably seen the musical than read the book. I knew it had characters named Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, whose cat-and-mouse routine was an early precursor to The Fugitive. A tiny girl was prominent in all the musical’s ads and best-selling merchandise. That’s really all I knew before walking in.
Why I hadn’t tried it before: We never had to read the novel in school, and plays cost a lot more to go watch than movies. I knew a few people in high school who were fans, but they were in another clique, not mine. I felt no peer pressure to keep up with them.
How it all went down (with SPOILERS): Several years after the French Revolution, about which I also learned next to nothing in school, the beaten-down Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is several years into a prison sentence for the heinous crime of bread thievery. If he had added a pat of butter to his haul, it would’ve meant the guillotine. He and his cronies sing and raise a mizzenmast while their oppressive prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe) sings orders at them. The communication style was a struggle for me to overcome: everyone in the movie sings every single line. This is truly not my world. Presumably all of these lines of dialogue belong to specific songs, but distinguishable choruses were few and far between. Perhaps wealthy Broadway patrons are content with musicals that deviate from American verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. I had no idea how to discern where one song ended, the next began, or what song titles to look for on iTunes. Listening to songs without knowing their titles is a major pet peeve for me.
When Valjean finishes his sentence, he steals priceless dishware from a church that was gracious enough to take him in. He’s caught and marched back, but the clergyman refuses to press charges, showing him mercy and the first real kindness Valjean has seen in ages. He’s inspired to become a better man.
Fast-forward eight years later. Valjean is wanted for violating probation, but has cleverly disguised himself as a respectable businessman who runs an all-ladies sweatshop. Javert is now a police inspector who fails to recognize Valjean, but has that constant look in face of “That voice. Where have heard I that voice?” a la Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Meanwhile, one of Valjean’s employees, a lowly scullery maid named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is drummed out of the sweatshop corps after she’s outed as a single mom. Desperate for quick cash, she sells all her hair and a few back teeth, then dabbles in prostitution.
At one point the rest of the movie takes a back seat so Fantine can sing a powerful, searing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”. This scene is an audio-visual test to determine which viewers are humans with working hearts, and which viewers are utter monsters who should excuse themselves and sneak into the next screen to endure their fifth showing of Texas Chainsaw 3-D instead.
Javert tries to arrest Fantine, but Valjean intervenes because he’s a fan of charity and redemption. He takes her to a hospital, but it’s far too late. Before her Oscar-worthy passing, Valjean learns of her daughter Cosette, now a tender orphan with an amazing voice. Unfortunately, she’s in the clutches of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who run an evil comic-relief hotel, steal from their customers, and will no doubt force poor Cosette to adopt a middle and last name. Valjean wrests her from their oily grasp the only way he knows how: by purchasing her. Despite this slight detour into child trafficking, he becomes her de facto stepfather for the noblest of motives. Meanwhile, Javert regrets living in a time without readily available police mugshots.
Nine more years pass. Valjean’s hair is grayer and bushier. Cosette is now Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia! Her former three-named tormentors are now destitute but no less skeevy. Javert remains Javert. The rest of the movie, on the other hand, completely lost me because we’re suddenly introduced to a large new group of young, disenfranchised men, all angry because the French Revolution didn’t bring about radical prosperity for all citizens great and small. Clearly killing a king wasn’t enough. The solution: let’s kill two kings! Thus do they boast and preen and plan for French Revolution II. This is no mere Occupy Ancient Paris; they have guns, some weird song about “red/black/red/black”, a large fort made of broken furniture, and their leader Marius (Eddie Redmayne) whose voice, during the more sostenuto measures, reminded me of Dudley Do-Right. A ragamuffin named Gavroche is their team mascot. How can they lose? All they have to do is stand proudly, espouse traditional French values, and pray like crazy that several million other citizens who aren’t impetuous teens will rise up to join their Quixotic quest for a better country where everyone’s magically rich. Or something.
In addition to French youth in revolt, we also learn of a love triangle. Marius is good friends with another lady named Eponine, who likes-him likes him. Marius is a short-sighted jerk who doesn’t see her that way and instead falls for Cosette because from a distance she looked really hot and he could just tell she was The One For Him. Alas, Valjean thinks Javert is on to them and drags Cosette into hiding so that their puppy love can never be, before they’ve even had a first date.
At one point Javert tries going undercover with the revolutionaries, but is so bad at it that his cover is blown by the mascot. Javert is sentenced to death, but then Valjean, who’s now in their good graces, offers to do the deed for them. He takes Javert offscreen, pretends to kill him, and sets him free, extending him the same mercy that the clergyman once showed him. Javert is confused, but makes the most of his freedom and flees. Luckily for Valjean, Marius is not the experienced kind of militia leader who knows well enough to insist on seeing a body as proof that a job’s been done right.
Marius’ merry marching men take a couple of tries to stage their revolution in earnest amidst the narrow city streets, intending an ambush like all the best Westerns set in box canyons. Awaiting the entire city population to rush to their aid, Marius’ men are totally let down and annihilated. Eponine naturally dies early on, living just long enough to confess her true love to Marius, who’s kind of bummed about it, but probably can’t wait to see Cosette again. Jerk.
Marius is nearly killed, but Valjean saves the day by absconding with him into the sewers. They’re confronted on the other end of the pipes by Javert, still bent on doing his job and catching his man. Valjean keeps walking. Javert is now conflicted: if he does his job, the man who saved him will pay. If he doesn’t do his job, the man who broke the law won’t pay and he’s a bad policeman. His logic wires short-circuit, driving him to suicide to escape a world that no longer makes sense to him. It’s just too hard.
Marius and Cosette reunite, marry, and put up with Borat and Bellatrix LeStrange for one last scene. Then they rush to a convent for one last word with Valjean, who sings his life one last time, shares his complete story, and then is guided away to heaven by the spirits of all the other dead characters, all of whom presumably share the exact same afterlife judgment. It’s extremely moving, but does raise a question or two about order of post-flesh events.
Judge’s summation: Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read the 1500-page novel before seeing the movie. I’m certain that some vital plot points eluded me, to say nothing of my sketchy knowledge of French history in general. Many lyrics were indecipherable in the theatrical setting, seriously crying out for subtitles. There was also the part where I was supposed to sympathize with anything Marius did. The film all but foisted him on me after the second, more jarring time-jump and informed me that it was now my job to treat him as a protagonist and support his every action or song. This never quite occurred.
Ultimately, I suppose I’m not as cultured as the movie needed me to be in order to appreciate its narrative complexities and English-major subtleties to their fullest. On the other hand, I have to wonder how many of those 1500 pages were excised, and how many hundreds of them would’ve made a difference. Would stretching this out to a Hobbit-sized trilogy have provided enough space to work in all the book things?
On the plus side: when the movie said it was time to cry (e.g., “I Dreamed a Dream”, Valjean’s passing), resistance was futile. The messages about sacrifice, caring for widows and orphans, mercy, grace, confession, and redemption are the sort of themes I rarely see in theaters. Seeing those examples on the big screen was refreshing and encouraging. I could also appreciate thematic contrasts here and there between light and dark, morality and legality, living in shadows versus living in light, and so forth.
With the previously noted exception of Marius, and setting aside the aforementioned enunciation quibbles, I also didn’t mind anyone else’s singing voice, not even Russell Crowe’s, though other reviews say I’m alone in this. He has a voice fit for hard rock rather than operatics or “The Star-Spangled Banner”. I was fine with that. I speak as someone whose music collection includes vocals from the likes of Henry Rollins, Mike Doughty, Dickie Barrett, Kim Gordon, Mike Ness, and countless other non-traditional, unpretty throats. I’m not a fan of American Idol or The Voice. I don’t limit my listening to classically trained sopranos or top-40 divas. Crowe’s work was fine by me.
Though this was a mixed bag in my Philistine eyes, I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience Les Miserables in some fashion, and not just for the sake of crossing it off my Oscar-watching list. Now I can more readily recognize the character names when they pop up in other works, retroactively recognizing past reference points such as “Prisoner 24601” and the occasional song parody.
One classic work down, several thousand others to go. If someone could now remake Oklahoma! or finally bring Cats to the big screen, that would help me tremendously with my quest for cultural cred.
[The MCC Request Line is open! If you know of something worth viewing or reading — whether large or small, independent or mega-corporate, famous or new start-up — or if there’s a sad travesty out there that demands closer examination, feel free to let me know by email, Comments, or the official MCC Facebook page!]