The world's no longer just "Black and Red": a look at Les Mis


Ever since Anne Hathaway's rending performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" in the teaser trailer last summer, fans giddily awaited the latest theatrical release of Les Mis, while the Academy began polishing Oscar trophies (eight, to be exact). Victor Hugo's story of justice and mercy has moved people for years, first as a novel in 1862 and eventually arriving on Broadway in 1987. The beloved musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Miserables! has finally come to the big screen. But though it often soars sublimely on stage, problems of transition to a new medium that is more tailored for modern viewers will leave some Broadway diehards disappointed, with others taking home the wrong messages.

Les Miserables follows the story of escaped convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after an encounter with a kind-hearted Bishop (Colm Wilkinson, Broadway’s original Jean Valjean), dedicates his life to God and helping his fellow man--all while evading capture by the stalwart yet merciless Inspector Javert (Russel Crowe), who is determined to deal him his fair due.

The film's box office performance marks success for the vision of director Tom Hooper (also director of Oscar darling, The King's Speech), who desired to create an unprecedented blend of the cinematic and musical stage experiences.  During the film's recording, the actors gave live singing performances, rather than in a recording studio.  Jackman and Hathaway were adamant about embracing this new approach, and all that remained to be seen was how it would fare onscreen.

Did it work?


The movie is well done from top to bottom.  Nearly the entirety of the film's massive cast nail their performances.  Jackman sacrifices some singing quality for acting, and Crowe sacrifices some acting strength for singing quality, but Hathaway manages both flawlessly.

The film looks as grand, epic and gritty as anything Hollywood has recently produced. The landscapes and sets are huge, and you're swept up into the world of giant shipyards, revolutionary streets and dark brothels of 19th century France.  The filmmakers take great pains to be realistic and not to shy from the dirt and figurative filth.

Sadly though, this heavy realism did not always work with such a literal translation of the Broadway musical. The integration of the two mediums was often clumsy, rather than seamless, as one would hope.

Things that worked on stage--where the audience can expect some impressionistic fudging--did not make as much sense in a movie, such as Fantine's fall from grace playing out in one scene.  I caught myself wishing the actors would simply act once in a while, rather than sing most every line.  Yet I am aware that reworking the play with more dialogue might be deemed heretical.

The world is a slightly different place now than the one Victor Hugo inhabited.  The moral debate of our society today is not so much about the balance between justice and mercy as it is the standard of justice itself.  We aren't arguing if we can love the prostitute despite her profession, but rather if we should approve of prostitution.

People tend to apply the messages they see in films to the world that presently surrounds them. In that light, the movie becomes not a call to have mercy on sinners but to reject the idea of sinners altogether.  Javert becomes not a perversion of the law but a symbol of the law itself--a defender of the established order that is intrinsically unjust and should be overturned (if necessary, the story implies, by revolution).

And yet, as I sat in the theater while the credits rolled, I had a feeling I rarely get after seeing a movie.  I had just watched a movie that looked unflinchingly at injustice and evil, and yet just as unflinchingly at a loving God.  I was reminded that Heaven will set everything right that is now wrong in the world, and I was moved by a movie that gave a glimpse of that.

Hooper certainly brought out that forgotten hope, with great touches like Javert pinning a medal on a fallen young revolutionary, and the crosses that hung everywhere as symbols of hope when people needed them most.  Viewers can expect to come out of the film reminded of the power of love, forgiveness, mercy and redemption that God offers every man.