In this post, from last year, I mentioned that I regard Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as the finest novel ever written. I also think the musical version actually captures the spirit of the novel pretty well, far better than any of the non-musical film adaptations that have appeared over the years.
You can imagine, then, my excitement at the release of the movie version of the musical. I saw it last week. Short review: Good enough that I plan on seeing it again in the theater, but not quite the knock-your-scoks-off excellent that I wanted.
There are two big weaknesses that are hard to forgive. The first is that Russell Crowe, as Javert, is as bad as you’ve heard. The bane of so many movie musicals is the need to put movie stars, as opposed to Broadway types, in the lead roles. Think Richard Gere in Chicago. I understand the pressure on film makers to cast famous names, but there has to be some limit. How could they have shot this entire film without someone noticing that Crowe can’t sing? More than that, he is all wrong for the part anyway, since he is insufficiently menacing. Considering that Javert gets two of the most powerful solos in the show, this is a serious problem.
The second problem is that they shortened several of the big numbers, and added some weak material that was not in the show. Among the shortened numbers are both of the Thenardiers’s songs (“Master of the House” and “Beggar at the feast”), which, as the only bit of comic relief in a very downbeat story, should have been lengthened if anything. They also shortened Javert’s big suicide song, which might have been for the best given what I said earlier about Crowe.
So, yes, those are serious weaknesses. But there’s a lot of good stuff as well. Several big things from the novel, absent from the stage version of the show, were restored to the film. We get Jean Valjean’s MacGyver-like escape from Javert, in which he is eventually rescued by Fauchelevent, the man Valjean had earlier heroically rescued from an overturned cart. We also get at least a hint of the tension between young revolutionary Marius and his conservative grandfather, which comprises a two hundred page subplot in the novel. There are other items as well.
Ultimately, the film passed the only test that mattered. It is just under three hours long, but it flies by. I wished it had gone on for another three. Hugh Jackman and especially Anne Hathaway are very good, and most of the members of the supporting cast (Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Samantha Barks as Eponine and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette) are really outstanding.
So, a review of good, but not very good. I must say, though, that my opinion of the film has gone up as I’ve read some of the more scathing reviews. Film critics occupy the lowest rung of respectability among journalists, and as I’ve read one preening pseudo-intellecutal after another bash the film on spurious grounds I’ve been reminded of why.
An especially extreme representative of the genre is this review from David Denby of The New Yorker. We pick up the action in the third paragraph:
Didn’t any of my neighbors notice how absurdly gloomy and dolorous the story was? How the dominant blue-gray coloring was like a pall hanging over the material? How the absence of dancing concentrated all the audience’s pleasure on the threadbare songs? How tiresome a reverse fashion show the movie provided in rags, carbuncles, gimpy legs, and bad teeth? How awkward the staging was? How strange to have actors singing right into the camera, a normally benign recording instrument, which seems, in scene after scene, bent on performing a tonsillectomy?
Notice? Minus the snide remarks those were precisely the things I liked!
He complains that the story was gloomy and dolorous. Well, what did he expect from a story called “The Miserable?” And seriously, dance numbers? Dance numbers? And did he expect the poorest people in nineteenth century Paris not to be dressed in rags? And while I had some problems with the idea of having the actors perform their songs live, I thought the extreme close-ups during the solos were incredibly effective.
But Denby is just getting warmed up:
The young women, trembling like leaves in a storm, battered this way and that by men, never exercise much will or intelligence. Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, gets her teeth pulled, her hair chopped, and her body violated in a coffin box—a Joan of Arc who only suffers, a pure victim who never asserts herself. Hathaway, a total pro, gives everything to the role, exploiting those enormous eyes and wide mouth for its tragic-clown effect. Like almost everyone else, she sings through tears. Most of the performances are damp.
This is completely delusional. Most of the women in the movie represent the lowest rungs of Parisian society. Was Denby expecting them to organize feminist rallies?
As for Fantine, Denby is just being an asshole. Never asserts herself? She tries to assert herself at every turn, but gets smacked down relentlessly by the cruelty of her situation. She begins as a naive teenager, with a boyfriend who gets her pregnant. This boyfriend then abandons her cold, because what was a deep and meaningful relationship for her was just a silly fling to him. But she picks herself up, leaves her child with the Thenardiers (who she wrongly believes are kind and loving parents), and goes off to the city to find honest work. The Thenardiers then extort money from her, and lie to her about the health of her daughter.
She finds work as a seamstress, thereby attaining a small measure of happiness because she is, at least, able to provide for her daughter. But it does not last long. Her malicious coworkers find out about her illegitimate child and tell the foreman. Fantine tries to defend herself, singing:
Yes, there’s a child and the child is my daughter.
And her father abandoned us leaving us flat.
Now she lives with an innkeeper man and his wife
And I pay for the child, what’s the matter with that?
That looks like asserting herself to me. But it is all for naught. Her coworkers instantly turn against her, and the foreman, seeing a chance for payback for Fantine’s refusal of his sexual advances (another instance of her asserting herself), fires her.
She then tries to keep her dignity, but what can she do? She sinks into prostitution, but only after it is impressed upon her that there is absolutely no other option. It is at this point that she sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” which, granted, is probably the most depressing song ever to appear in a musical. (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” from later in the show, is a close second.)
But even at this lowest point she tries to fight back. When an especially odious customer is abusive toward her, she attacks him. She then pleads her case to Javert, but he would never take the word of a prostitute over a respectable male member of society. When Jean Valjean arrives, she lays into him for letting his foreman fire her. And with that, finally, she gets her case in front of the right person. Confident that her daughter will finally be okay, she dies happy.
I think she did pretty well for a pure victim who never asserted herself. Perhaps Denby thinks he could have done better in comparable circumstances.
But this is just the beginning of the insanity. Try to believe that Denby actually wrote this:
Is it sacrilege to point out that the Victor Hugo novel, stripped of its social detail and reduced to its melodramatic elements, no longer makes much sense? That the story doesn’t connect to our world (which may well be the reason for the show’s popularity)? Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another, while Javert pursues him all over France. Wherever Valjean goes, Javert shows up; he’s everywhere at once, like the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” who was at least intended to be a fanciful creation.
Stripped of its social detail? That detail is the main point of the novel! The story doesn’t connect with our world? Right, because nowadays it never happens that poor people are given draconian prison sentences for trivial crimes, while the privileged are never called to account for their greater transgressions.
And Jean Valjean does do something wrong. His nineteen years in prison turned him into the hardened criminal he never was before his arrest. When he gets out, he steals valuable silver from the one man who was kind to him. It is only a completely unexpected and undeserved act of mercy that leads him to change his life. I’m one of those hardcore atheist types, but if all religious people were like that bishop I think I’d convert too. Saints may not make for interesting heroes, but people who try valiantly to become more saint-like after a life of hardship and unfairness sure do.
The stupidity just keeps coming. Javert is everywhere Jean Valjean goes. Really? Denby seems to have missed the parts where long periods of time go by with no encounters between the two of them. Javert presides when Jean Valjean is released from prison, and then they don’t see each other again for ten years. They run into each other again, leading to Jean Valjean’s fall as the mayor and his new life raising Cosette. Then nine more years go by before they see each other again.
Doesn’t Javert have anything else to do with his life? He seems less a relentless avatar of the law than merely daft—and a melodramatic contrivance. He doesn’t even have a streak of perversity—in his own stupid way, he’s meant to be noble, a man of conscience. Dare I suggest that the mutual obsession of Valjean and Javert is actually boring and morally insignificant? The relationship never develops; the two men never push beyond the surface of each other’s characters. And the implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? Saints do not make interesting heroes.
This is more madness. Of course Javert seems daft, but do you really not recognize the personality type? He is a standard issue fundamentalist, completely unable to see any shades of grey. The point is not that he is noble and a man of conscience, it is that he sees himself that way, precisely as all fundamentalists do.
The rest of this paragraph is even more bizarre. It has no connection to anything that is actually portrayed in the film. Javert evolves dramatically in the course of the story. When his rigid ideology is shown to be false by Valjean’s repeated acts of kindness, he can’t handle it and chooses suicide. The moral depth of the story comes from the different journeys of Valjean and Javert. When shown extraordinary mercy by the bishop, Valjean, a basically decent man placed in a bad situation, sees the possibility of changing his life. When he then shows Javert a similar act of mercy, Javert cannot handle it. He chooses death over change. That seems morally significant to me. But I guess I’m just one of those mawkish dumbasses lured in by the false emotion of the story. I’m lucky to have clear-headed people like Denby to set me straight.
Denby concludes with:
And now, the real point: our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes. Even the serious musicals, like “Carousel” and “West Side Story,” had their funny moments.
So that’s what it really is. Denby prefers his musicals puerile and brain dead. No shame in that, I like a good bit of fluff myself. But it’s not Hugo’s fault that he preferred to deal with more serious material, and it does not reflect badly on the filmmakers that they tried to preserve that spirit in the movie.
I had not intended to go on for some long, but Les Miserables is a subject I take very seriously. It deserves better treatment than a pipsqueak like Denby has seen fit to give it.