Les Miserables Review

poster from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

A few months ago, I watched the 10th Anniversary concert DVD of Les Miserables and I thought: that was incredibly moving. But what the hell was going on? So I read the book and filled myself in. Now all I needed to do was see the stage musical and my life would be complete. The movie musical came along instead. It has the same plot as the book and show.

A convict on the run from the law tries to atone for his mistakes by raising the orphaned daughter of a factory worker.

Having seen stage musicals before and now having seen this movie, I think seeing the movie may actually be better than the stage show in a lot of ways. For one thing, you don’t just hear their emotions in their voices, you can see them on their faces, and it makes a BIG difference. If you’re not moved by Les Mis, you might want to get your anterior insular cortex checked.

The fact that so many people are moved by Les Miserables in its show/movie form means that it is a successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, which he wrote in the mid 1800s in the hopes of slapping his peers in the face with the reality of how horrible life was for the people underneath them – the ones they typically ignored. The first number in the musical, “Look Down,” is as much an exhortation to the audience as a description of life as a convict.

Javert and his cronies from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Unlike most historical movies, it’s the grimy background people we’re concerned with,
not the fancy ones on horseback.

The book is over 1,000 pages but by excising a lot of peripherally related subplots, tertiary characters, and historical background and condensing the major events in the plot into three minute songs, they’re able to trace almost 50 years of French history in under three hours (don’t worry, it doesn’t feel like three hours). The story begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being released from prison, where he served 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Apparently bread is a lot more valuable than I realized.

Valjean tries to go straight, but no one will give him work because he’s a convict. After he is saved from a return to prison by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson – the original London Jean Valjean) Valjean disappears and later resurfaces as a mayor and factory owner who is hounded by Javert (Russell Crowe) his former guard turned police officer, because he broke his parole.

Javert faces off against Jean Valjean from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

JAVERT: You know, you look a lot like this convict I used to know.
VALJEAN: Nonesense. I’m much cleaner now.

In his efforts to become a better person, he helps Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a dying factory worker who was fired and forced to turn to prostitution, by agreeing to care for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Fast forward about ten years. Jean Valjean is still on the run from Javert and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is a teenager in love with an idealistic student named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who’s part of a student movement to rebel against the reinstated French king on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.

Student revolution from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Down with rich people! At least until we become rich in their place.

Some of the things that happen in Les Mis are a little convenient – much like a Dickens novel, where the same characters keep miraculously cropping up in the same places at the same times, but that was the style at the time the book was written. The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who act as the comic relief in this dark story, are particularly well travelled.

Thenardiers from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Don’t cut yourselves yet, audience! Swindling people is hilarious!

Some of the characters’ struggles may also seem overdone if you’re not familiar with French history (19 years in prison for stealing bread??), but I assure you that the reality of life for the poor during the times they’re depicting was actually much worse – so bad you probably wouldn’t even believe it if they showed it to you in a movie.

Jean Valjean finds Fantine from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Cheer up, sweetheart. At least you don’t have leprosy.

I looked forward to Les Mis for a long time but I was a little worried about Eddie Redmayne as Marius. He’d been so pouty and unpleasant in his other roles that I didn’t think he’d fit as the syrupy Marius, who falls in love with Cosette after seeing her once for like three seconds, but I was wrong. He was perfect.

Marius and Cosette in love from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

MARIUS: I lurv you!
COSETTE: I lurv you more!

They were all perfect, really. All of the major actors in this film completely gutted themselves emotionally right there on screen. I’ve never seen anything like it. The acting in Les Mis is head and shoulders above every other movie musical I’ve ever seen, and that’s because director Tom Hooper insisted on recording all of the singing live rather than lip synching to a studio track, meaning the actors could focus on, well, acting rather than trying to match their mouths to the audio like a dubbed Japanese cartoon.

Jean Valjean comforts Fantine from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I will burn down the Academy.

My brother, who does film sound, actually tracked down and personally congratulated Simon Hayes, the production sound mixer, for managing to record something so incredible in a dirty, rainy, windy, outside location.

Jean Valjean is free from the Universal Pictures film Les Miserables

Sorry, all the mic picked up was WOOOOOOOSH. Can you do that crying thing again?

When the movie was over, everyone in the packed theatre burst into applause, even though no one involved with the movie could hear them. This is that kind of movie. It’s also the kind of movie where you feel like you need to share it with the unenlightened – like you’ve been born again into a religion. I dragged my mom and brother to the show and they thanked me for it. So let me push you into going with this post. You can thank me in the comments.

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