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Les Misérables: A Diamond of the First Water

Les Miserable movie poster featuring Anne Hathaway

Taking Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables, and transforming it first into a play and then into a movie is like selecting from among the finest of crown jewels and crafting them into a beautiful brooch.  Having seen the stage play many years ago and having read the book many, many years ago, I found the movie eminently satisfying, indeed beautifully done.

I had misgivings.  They had, I thought, studded it with Hollywood stars just to draw the audiences.  Nevertheless, it is very well cast.  It was some time before I recognized Hugh Jackman since his first appearance was as the imprisoned Jean Valjean with grubby face and closely-cropped hair.  It was not until he emerged as the respectable Mayor and beneficent factory owner that he was easily recognizable.  Valjean's crimes had been the stealing of a loaf of bread and the subsequent breaking of his parole for which he is relentlessly pursued by the dogged Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe. 

Valjean steals again—but this time from Bishop Myriel.  When Valjean is apprehended, the bishop insists that Valjean had not stolen the silver, that it had been a gift and proceeds to give Valjean two silver candlesticks as well. This scene demonstrates a difference between the book and the dramatic versions.  Hugo takes great pains to portray the bishop as a man of goodness, generosity, and purity.  Hugo's novel is deeply religious and moral, and the portrait of the bishop underscores these themes.  The dramatic productions had to breeze over the portrait of the bishop, sufficing to demonstrate that he turned Valjean's life around.  The bishop incidentally is played by Colm Wilkinson who played Valjean in the original London and Broadway stage productions. 

That Jackman carries the role of Valjean in all good measure and that Crowe plays Javert with implacable toughness and his own sincerity of purpose is no great surprise.  But, what of the dazzling Anne Hathaway?  Can she play Fantine and invoke compassion for the tragic young woman?  The answer is, yes.  Director Tom Hooper has chosen a close-up of her singing, I Dreamed a Dream, in which every emotion is clearly seen.  Hathaway delivers convincingly.

As opposed to the dramatic versions, Hugo's writing succeeds better in such scenes as when the eight-year-old Cosette, played by Isabelle Allen, is sent into the woods on a dark night to a spring to fetch a bucket of water. Hugo details the fright that anyone, especially a child, must feel in the woods in the dark.  Here the movie disappoints.  The little Cosette meets a smiling Valjean and though she is initially afraid, she quickly returns his smile.  But here is how Hugo wrote it, as the child is struggling with the water-laden bucket in the dark:

At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone.  A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily.  A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking beside her in the darkness.  A man who had come up behind her and whom she had not heard.  This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying.

There are instincts for all the crises of life.

The child was not afraid.

But there are ways in which the movie and the play are satisfying that the book cannot be.  First, they bring the characters to life, especially gratifying when the production is well cast.  Second, they add the marvelous music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer.  The young Cosette's song, Castle on a Cloud,  bespeaks so well the longing of a motherless child.  Fantine's I Dreamed a Dream is heartbreaking.  The young revolutionaries make the blood rush in Do You Hear the People Sing?  Valjean's Bring Him Home is exquisite.  Jackson does a fine job with this song but his voice doesn't quite match the emotional heights of Colm Wilkinson's performance. 

Movie poster for Les Miserables featuring Helena Bonham CarterIn the book, the innkeeper and his wife, M. and Mme. Thenardier are simply evil.  In the play and movie they are hilariously odious giving the kick of comic relief to an otherwise emotionally taxing story.  I kept looking at the actress playing Mme. Thenardier thinking, "I know that face," but was unable to place it until the credits.  She is Helena Bonham Carter, the leading lady in such English classics as, A Room with a View and The Wings of the Dove.  She played the role less broadly than some of her counterparts, giving it a more sly comic touch.

Other actors deserve lots of applause as well.  Amanda Seyfried who plays Cosette as the young woman is fine and lovely.  Eddie Redmayne has a Romeo-like ardency as Marius.  Sacha Baron Cohen is deliciously despicable as Thenardier.  Samantha Barks gives a strong and heart-rending performance as Eponine.   And Daniel Huttlestone steals the heart as the young Gavroche.

From page to stage to screen, Les Misérables is great.  If you haven't read the book, may the movie lead you to it.  The brooch may be finely-crafted and beautiful, but the book, this crown jewel of nineteenth-century French literature, is so much more.