When The Beating of Your Heart Echoes the Beating of the Drums…

les-miserables-jean-valjean-movie-posterYou may recall that I wrote a Very Long Review of my theatre experience with Les Miserables.  So perhaps you’ve been expecting a review of the movie, which just opened on Christmas.  I went to see it this weekend, thoroughly enjoyed it, and yet also have…complicated feelings.  Hopefully a review will help me unpack this.  So here we go–and there will be spoilers, because you can’t talk about anything important in Les Mis without spoilers.

Very brief and abbreviated plotline, in case you need some context as we go forward: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-convict, arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, who attempts to remake his life–which involves running out on his parole.  He’s perpetually hunted by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who believes that criminals never change and it’s his duty to bring Valjean to justice.  Valjean’s path crosses with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is driven to prostitution to provide for her daughter, Cosette, who’s being raised by the truly horrible yet comical innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).  Valjean ends up taking care of Cosette.  When she grows up, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Remayne), a revolutionary whose friends are at the heart of an uprising in Paris.  My favorite characters are on their own sideplots: Eponine (Samantha Barks), the Thenardiers’ daughter, who also falls in love with Marius; and Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), a street urchin in the middle of the revolution.

So that was the brief overview.  It’s a long movie!  But so much happens and it’s all carried along with such wonderful songs that it really didn’t feel very long.  Hobbit is only about ten minutes longer, but felt much longer.

A few general comments before I get into the depths of the characters–this is an intense movie, and they did not skimp when it came to intense make-up.  And by that, I mean that they must have gone through barrels of dirt.  There is a long series of poverty-stricken, devastated or ill people, and they brought it all intensely to life with make-up and costumes.  Almost every actor looks horrible at some point–and that’s exactly how it should be.

And the soundtrack–the songs are amazing.  Period.  I could tell you about how wonderful each one is as we go along, but let’s just assume they’re all amazing and leave it at that.

Now, let’s dig into the characters.  There are some very surprising names in the cast here, but I thought the actors all did wonderful jobs.  Hugh Jackman carries the biggest burden of this movie, and he absolutely lived up to it.  The singing was excellent, there are intense moments, and he played a deep, conflicted Valjean.

Russell Crowe was more surprising–who knew he could sing?  But he can!  I would have liked him to let loose a little more in some of the songs, but he was wonderful in “Confrontation” and the suicide scene.  Though the best Javert, jaw-drop-that’s-brilliant, moment was when he sings “Stars” walking on the very edge of a ledge.  Foreshadowing, much?

Fantine300Anne Hathaway was maybe the most surprising.  I’ve seen her in dramatic roles, but she’s still mostly the light character, frequently the ugly duckling.  She went the other way here, as Fantine spirals downward.  They don’t skimp on the anguish and she delivers an incredibly intense performance.

This may be the moment to talk about “I Dreamed a Dream,” and some of my complicated feelings.  You’ve probably heard it in the previews and it’s very emotional in the movie as well.  I don’t have any reservations about Hathaway’s singing or acting–but I hated the camera angle.  That sounds silly…but almost the entire song is a close-up on Fantine’s face and shoulders.  Trying to carry an audience for four minutes on that shot…I don’t know, I wanted body movement, I wanted walking around, I wanted Fantine walking through the mess and the whores and the disaster that her life has become.  A stage actress can stand in one place and sing.  A movie gives you more opportunities, and I think they could have done more with it…not to say that it wasn’t breath-taking anyway.

Les-Miserables-Movie-PostersMoving along through the plotline…the Thernardiers were wonderful.  I completely forgot Helena Bonham Carter was in this, so I was delighted to see her.  She and Cohen felt like escapees from Sweeney Todd, with their high hilarity in the middle of this intensely dark movie.  They weren’t jarring, though, just a very different element in the mix.  They were quite nasty in spots, but mostly enormous fun.

Cosette I actually liked a bit better than I did in the play.  Her first song as an adult is about how she has these questions about her father, and is trying to figure things out, and something about it made me feel like she had a little more spunk than usual.

On to the revolutionaries…I didn’t like Marius, but I never like Marius, so that was not surprising.  I was a little baffled, in that they cast kind of a goofy-looking actor, and Marius’ usual good looks are most of what he has going for him.  He delivered an excellent “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” though, and I believed in his revolutionary fervor much more than I did in the stage version.  There’s a couple added bits that made me actually believe he had more depth than a rich student who was slumming.

I loved Enjolras, also not surprising.  He’s the leader of the revolutionaries and he was just wonderful.  Fervent, dedicated, everything I wanted him to be.  I have to say, though, that he dies better in the stage play–and here’s another of my complicated feelings.

The revolutionaries flee the barricade at the very end, and there’s this wonderful, heartbreaking moment when they hammer on the doors of the people nearby, the people of Paris who they rose up to defend, and no one lets them in.  Heartbreaking.  But then they ultimately die in the upper room of the inn–which is good for Marius’ later song, but somehow not as meaningful as everyone falling on the barricade.  I loved Enjolras and another revolutionary standing together as the soldiers fire, and they did have Enjolras fall holding his banner.  Love that.  But in the stageplay, there’s a long, aching moment as he lays across the barricade with his flag.  The movie had a moment but it was too fast.

I actually don’t know the name of my other favorite revolutionary.  Beedrill, maybe you can help me out here?  I’m sure you know it!  One of the revolutionaries is the closest with Gavroche, and he didn’t get a lot of screentime earlier, but he looks so horrified when Gavroche crawls out in front of the barricade.  Wonderful.

Which leads me to Gavroche.  Love him.  Excellent singing, and exactly the cheeky, devil-may-care, never-say-die character I wanted.  They did a beautiful lead-in to his last scene.  The revolutionaries’ resolve is faltering, and then you hear Gavroche pick up “Do You Hear the People Sing?” again, and they go on.  And then he sneaks out to pick up ammunition from the fallen soldiers, and is singing his defiant song…and it’s so sad.

samatha-barks-as-eponine-in-les-miserablesAnd I come finally to my favorite character.  I love Eponine’s character in the play, and I thought the actress was excellent.  I love that she puts on men’s clothing and comes out to join the revolutionaries.  But they did muddle her story a bit.  It’s in the details–in the play, she’s delivering messages between Marius (who she’s in love with!) and Cosette (who he’s in love with).  And it’s so selfless and tragic.  In the movie, she hides a letter from him.  I so don’t like that change.  She does die to protect Marius–he’s not worth it, but I like that they gave her that moment of sacrifice.  But rather like Enjolras, I thought they moved on too quickly.

And I have more complicated feelings about “On My Own.”  Like Fantine’s song, the actress was excellent, the singing was excellent (though I still prefer Danielle Hope’s version).  But the camera angle!  It’s almost entirely a headshot, and I don’t understand that choice.  She’s singing about walking around in the night and imagining Marius with her.  I want a scene of her walking around Paris!  Also, putting it in the pouring rain…it takes a tragic, heartfelt scene and makes it melodramatic.  It’s dramatic enough already on a dry stage.

So let’s see…I’ve been through the characters and most of the plot, anything I’m missing…?  Colm Wilkinson!  I saw his name on the credits and had to look up who he played–the Bishop.  He originated Valjean on stage, and I so love that he had a role here.  And it brings a whole different sublayer to it when Vajean dies and sees the Bishop welcoming him.

Which brings me nicely to the end of the movie.  Here they really took advantage of being a movie.  The play is so moving when all the characters who had died line up on the stage to reprise “Do You Hear the People Sing?”  In the movie, they sweep out over Paris and you see this enormous crowd lined up with their banners, and we zoom in for close-ups on individual characters.  Eponine’s smile and Gavroche’s big cheeky grin just made me want to cry after watching their deaths.  The singing is heartfelt…such a glorious ending.  And I didn’t feel like the play was asking me to be consoled by the happy ending for Marius and Cosette (which never worked for me).  The consolation is that the ideals everyone died for will rise again.

So.  I loved the acting, I loved the singing, there were many important moments that were good but frustratingly I thought could have been better.  But it was still intense, deeply moving, and I feel a little better about my complicated feelings now that I’ve written them out.

And I am so looking forward to seeing this play again in a few months when the touring company comes to town!

 

About cherylmahoney

I'm a book review blogger and Fantasy writer. I have published three novels, The Wanderers; The Storyteller and Her Sisters; and The People the Fairies Forget. All can be found on Amazon as an ebook and paperback. In my day job, I'm the Marketing Specialist for Yolo Hospice. Find me on Twitter (@MarvelousTales) and GoodReads (MarvelousTales).
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10 Responses to When The Beating of Your Heart Echoes the Beating of the Drums…

  1. I’m real conflicted about the “I Dreamed a Dream” scene. On the one hand, I sort of just love that it’s just her sitting there siging. I think it’s really powerful. But then you’re right… a movie gives you freedom to do things. I liked what you said about walking through the slums. Or why not a flashback to when she was happy with Tholomyès (Cosette’s father)? But then I think about it and and I wonder if maybe that might have lessened the impact they were going for? It was very arresting with just her. (And to think, she probably had to do that take singing the whole song about fifty times!)

    Eddie is goofy-looking for sure, but I think he’s still rather good looking which is perfect for Marius. Marius is a really dorky goofy guy with zero social skills. The added bits to his character are straight from the book. Sorry to say, though, Éponine’s characterization in the movie is more close to the book, too.

    The deaths of all the barricaders are also more accurate to the book. I liked it, actually. Banging on doors. Fighting to the last. Chopping down the staircase, resorting to just throwing things at the soldiers when they’d run out of everything else.

    ESPECIALLY love the death of Enjolras and Grantaire together because… well… it would take a very long time to explain. I really have to write up my own reactions to the movie and I can expound there. But basically they mixed the death of Enjolras in the book with his iconic flag scene in the musical and I thought it was a very great nod to both of the mediums. I do wish they had been able to play up the relationship between Grantaire and Enjolras (Grantaire idolizes Enjolras) throughout the movie so that the scene would have been more significant, and I have a feeling a lot of Grantaire’s scenes were cut. As it is, only people who have read the book would have gotten how important a moment that was for both of them. I really want a director’s cut of this movie! I don’t care if it’s five hours, I want it!

    The barricader closest to Gavroche in the movie is Courfeyrac! This one, yes?

    He’s a cool guy, I think you’d like him in the book. 😉

    And the ending is a reference to the actually successful revolution of 1848 a few years later. It’s just… really nice to think of them as spirits or what have you looking on those events and celebrating that though they may have died, their ideas lived on and did take hold.

    You’re going to see the tour that’s so great! They’ve made a few cast changes since I last saw it, but this cast is truly amazing. 🙂

    • Ohhh, I don’t know how anyone could do that Dreamed a Dream take 50 times! I read an interview with Hathaway where she said it was very hard for her after wrapping filming, trying to readjust. I believe it!

      Okaaaay, I can’t really get upset about changes if they’re more in line with the book…and I’ve already begun to suspect that I may not be as attached to book-Eponine, when I read about her. But I still very much like play-Eponine.

      I love the background on Grantaire and Enjolras. You know the coolest things! And yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the right revolutionary. Thank you. 🙂

      I am SO looking forward to the play. And to the review of the movie that I’m sure you’re going to write… 😉

  2. dianem57 says:

    I thought Anne Hathaway’s performance was amazing. She had always seemed lightweight to me, in films like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Princess Diaries.” But in this role, she showed she is capable of serious dramatic – even melodramatic – acting. She didn’t just sing “I Dreamed a Dream” – she was acting it. That song encapsulated her character’s entire story, tragic as it was. I was very impressed. I expected good things from Hugh Jackman. After all, he’s starred on Broadway more than once, so I knew he could sing as well as act. He did not disappoint. But Anne Hathaway was the revelation for me.

  3. Swamp Adder says:

    Like you, I really disliked the constant headshots, which I thought were easily the worst aspect of the movie. Though I do wonder if it was a necessity caused by the (much vaunted) live singing — maybe the camera had to be that close to the actor’s face so the microphone wouldn’t be visible?

    Some of the changes you dislike were made to bring the story closer to the book — for example, Eponine hiding the letter from Marius instead of immediately delivering it. In the book Eponine is a tragic and sympathetic character, but she’s not the flawless heroine of the musical. Though her dying to save Marius is also from the book. So is the revolutionaries being driven back into the cafe (a wineshop, in the book) and dying there instead of on the barricade itself (which is more realistic, if less symbolic).

    The revolutionary who reacted in horror when Gavroche is about to die — I think that was Courfeyrac? I say that based on the script; I don’t remember that moment in the movie well enough to be sure.

    • The headshots really got to me…I was getting fixated on people’s teeth! Although I wonder if it might be better on a smaller screen. They wouldn’t LOOM quite so much.

      I forgive alterations that are in-line with the book…although I still think I like some of the play’s choices as being more powerful. But maybe I’d feel differently if I’d read the book…which I still plan to do…

      • Lily says:

        Sorry to be replying so late, but I just watched “Les Miserables”, and the close ups do work better on a smaller screen–in my case, a laptop screen.

  4. Carl V. says:

    Just left the theater and will probably do a review that I’ll post in a few days. Wept like a baby…probably would have been sobbing at the end had I been home instead of in the theater. There were a lot of sniffles going around.

    True, it wasn’t perfect. Unlike Phantom which takes place mostly IN a theater, I think adapting this one is much harder. So many things happen so fast traversing so many larger periods of time and that works great in the theatrical production but made the earlier parts of this film feel occasionally rushed and less polished. A minor niggle. Crowe was good though not nearly as good as those who play the role on stage. Still, I was happy with him.

    I actually liked the close up songs of both Fantine and Eponine. I like that I was only having my emotions manipulated (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) by the music and not by multiple movements and angles. It felt more intimate and personal, and terrible because of the sadness of their moments. I’m with you in that Marius has never been my favorite character but I liked that he wasn’t a pretty boy. His voice was perfect and he seemed earnest which was all I hoped for.

    The moment the Bishop opened his mouth to sing I leaned over and whispered to my wife that he was the original JVJ from Broadway. I’ve listened to the CD’s so many times that the voice is forever in my head. Man, he still has the pipes, doesn’t he?

    The telling moments for me were the emotional ones and for the most part I thought they captured them well. I shed a tear during Fantine’s last song, felt very tragic. Bring Him Home really got to me, as always, this time more because I couldn’t help but think of all those parents and family members with loved ones off at war right now. And of course the entire final scene had me sniffling and crying…kind of silly to think that I paid money to go have snot and tears running down my face, lol!

    Les Miserables is my favorite musical, has been since I first saw it many many years ago in Tulsa, OK and even though I too would have liked to see some things done better it is a more than adequate version for me to own to get my Les Miz fix when I need it.

    • I kind of expected there would be mixed feelings on those close-ups. I definitely appreciate your points on it too… What a surprisingly complicated question!

      I listen to the soundtrack enough that I should have recognized Wilkinson…but I didn’t. I think I might have heard he was in this, but I’d completely forgotten until he went by in the credits. Oh well, I got to get excited looking it up later.

      It is a little funny that we pay money to go cry…but it’s all so beautiful! I felt a little funny in spots writing this review, as I talk about how wonderful it all is that it’s so heartbreaking. But it’s just so beautifully told! And I feel like it’s ultimately an uplifting story, even for all the pain all the characters go through.

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