**Movie spoiler: If you haven’t seen the “Les Miz” movie yet, you may want to wait to read this review. It necessarily discusses important plot points in the scope of the “Les Miserables” movie review.
I know the story of “Les Miserables” very well. I lived in New York during the height of the musical’s popularity. I saw the musical. I read the book. The basic premise I’ve always understood, but it wasn’t until I saw Tom Hooper’s retelling of “Les Miz” on the Christmas Day 2012 opening of the film that I began pondering some of the deeper questions put forth by the tale of Jean Valjean. They were mostly questions of redemption and grace played out by Valjean and his nemesis, Javert. These men were two sides of the same coin, although it never quite occurred to me before in exactly that way. On one side of the coin is redemption of sin by deeds, and on the other, redemption by grace.
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What is the Story of “Les Miserables?”
The story of “Les Miserables” focuses primarily on Jean Valjean, a man who spent nearly 20 year in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his family. He initially got five years for the theft and eventually another 14 years for his subsequent escape attempts. When the character of Jean Valjean is finally freed from prison, he finds very quickly that life will still be a prison due to the yellow passport that he must carry with him. It is a document that will brand him a criminal for the rest of his days.
It’s a situation that nearly puts him back into prison as he wanders from place to place trying to find work and only finding rejection because of his former status as a convict. His life changes forever when he meets a priest who is in a position to send him back to prison for breaking the law, but who shows him grace instead. This act changes the character of Jean Valjean so much that he becomes the epitome of grace by the end of the story, including extending grace to his enemy, Inspector Javert.
“Les Miserables” Movie Cast Includes a Superhero and an Oscar Winner
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” actor, Hugh Jackman plays the role of Jean Valjean. Going into the film, I wasn’t quite sure about the choice, although I knew that Jackman has an extensive background in musical theater. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only is the role of Valjean a difficult one to sing, it’s a difficult one to act.
The character has a lot of nuances and provides the backdrop onto which many important questions about God, guilt, the nature of grace, feelings of primal fear, and waves of compassion are all played. Hugh Jackman nailed it on all counts. He was as believable as a grimy, downtrodden prisoner as he was as the mayor of the town. Although all his moments were good, including “Bring Him Home,” the character’s big number, the end scene as he is dying got me the most.
“Gladiator” actor, Russell Crowe played the opposite side of the good and evil coin. His Javert is the law side of the coin to Valjean’s side of grace. A strong hero needs a worthy adversary to bring the hero to full life. As written, Javert is. Although he comes from the same place that Valjean does, he opted for a life lived by the rigidity of the law instead of that of one by the grace of God. Given Javert’s song “Stars,” it would be difficult to argue that one man is more religious than the other, but audiences tend to like ValJean better as we all understand that a life lived is a life filled with mistakes, the remedy for which is often only forgiveness.
In this way, Javert is a very pivotal character, and it is with disappointment that I say that the character seemed difficult at times for Oscar winner, Russell Crowe to play. The role is difficult to sing and there were times that the actor struggled with that part of the role. And although I don’t believe in a villain being one dimensional, the character of Javert needed to be as strong as the character of Valjean. I thought he might be initially when he stood over the prisoners in the opening scenes of the movie. And at times, that element of the character returned throughout the flick. But his performance wasn’t as nuanced as I’ve seen Crowe display in the past and because of this, his big scene, the suicide doesn’t make sense. I know it’s written into the story, but it doesn’t fit, because the character wasn’t as developed as it could be. As well, the underlying religious question of “What is more important in salvation, the law or grace?” wasn’t as fully played out, because in order for that to happen, both Valjean and Javert need to be equally developed.
“Les Miserables’” Fantine: An Intimate Look at the Despair of the Times
Caught in the middle of Jean Valjean’s flight from Inspector Javert is Fantine, played with complete mastery by “The Dark Knight Rises” actress Anne Hathaway. Although Hathaway’s screen time is brief, she steals the show. Once a worker in Valjean’s factory, a sadistic and harassing foreman, who is angered mostly because he can’t have his way with Fantine, throws her out of the factory. She is forced into a life of prostitution because of it. Hathaway’s acting choices for her song “I Dreamed a Dream” were amazing, nuanced, and some that I’ve never seen other actresses playing the role choose. She is already getting Oscar buzz because of her role in the film and it is well deserved.
The Supporting Cast of “Les Miserables”: People We’ll See More Of
Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne play Marius and Cosette, the lovers in the story of “Les Miserables.” Seyfried plays Cosette with a great deal of dimension and Redmayne’s Marius is completely believable and compassionate. Although born into wealth, chooses to fight on the side of the student rebels for a better life. It’s likely that we’ll see more of Redmayne.
The Thenardiers—the innkeeper, his wife, and their daughter Eponine—were well cast. Sasha Baron Cohen plays the unpalatable Innkeeper to Helena Bonham Carter’s Madam Thenardier. As Bonham Carter said in an interview, they have no redeeming qualities, which is true, but they do provide some necessary and very welcome comic relief as well as driving the plot in important ways in certain places of the film.
Eponine: “Les Miserables’” character on the edge of love and society
Samantha Barks plays Eponine, and her characterization of the waif is filled with sadness and false hope—all the elements that make the character such an interesting one to watch. It’s likely we’ll be seeing more of her.
Finally, on a sentimental note, the film is worth seeing if only to see the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, who now plays the old priest in the “Les Miz” movie pass the torch onto Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. The kindness and compassion that Wilkinson musters as the priest is enough to make anyone think twice about returning to a life lived through the lens of cynicism.
Despite some weaknesses in the film, it does fulfill the story’s promise of spectacle and the role it’s always played in the canon of literature; it asks important questions about poverty, social class, and of God and redemption. It’s a must-see for those who love the story and love big movies. Just be sure to take tissues.
I give it four out of five stars.
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