"Les Misérables" - a wonderfully emotional, spiritual melodrama and a really great film

I saw "Les Misérables" a week last Thurs. night with old family friend Bernard Weaver. I blubbed like a baby through much of it, I hate to admit, which is weird because when I saw it on stage about 20 yrs. ago in London and it had nowhere near the same effect on me. I've got to know many of the individual songs over the years, but I think the main reasons for its effect on me came from the casting of very good actors who can sing a bit rather than the opposite, thus enhancing the dramatic power of the story/words, and the intimacy of the camerawork during the solo numbers which afforded the cast the chance to focus on the emotional truth of what they were singing - or at times speech-singing, such as during Anne Hathway's truly breath-taking "I Dreamed A Dream" - without the need to keep the decibel level near the max so as to reach row z of a theatre's Upper Circle. As a result, I found that the meaning of the lyrics hit home much more forcefully. I understood for the first time that there is a deeply spiritual heart beating within this musical, the pulse of which is set in motion through the scene with the Bishop of Digne near the beginning (I'll come back to this later). It's a story about a criminal who meets someone who sees beyond his crimes to the inviolable dignity of that man's soul, who forgives him ("saves his soul for God") and in so doing sets him free. Throughout the rest of his life that man, Valjean, then strives to do justice to the trust that the Bishop showed in him and in turn see the good in - and seek the good of - others (Fantine, Marius, Cosette and finally Javert, his nemesis).

Here's Bernard at the meal we had afterwards. He really enjoyed the film having 
seen the musical many years ago, but when the credits began to roll
 he turned and said to me (in his lovely 1940s Cockney accent) 
"Well that were a barrel o' larfs, wernit!", much to the amusement of the people sitting near us.

The cast were all terrific and totally committed. Russell Crowe's obvious lack of singing experience actually added to his characterisation in my opinion rather than detracted from it - the blunt instrument that is Javert, doing his duty, following the letter of the law, but finally unable to accept Valjean's 'pardon'. I know he's come in for some stick, but just watch this...

When I saw the musical on stage it quite clearly sagged dramatically during the middle section that focuses on the budding relationship between Marius and Cossette, but on film the pairing of the strikingly-featured Eddie Redmayne - who has a wonderfully sweet, youthful but polished tenor voice - and Amanda Seyfried - who is equally sweet and likeable as Cossette - worked tremendously well, complemented by Samantha Barks' touching Eponine.

I didn't find the Thénardiers particularly enjoyable on stage and despite the best efforts of Sacha Baron-Cohen and the always wonderful Helena Bonham-Carter, the "knees up, mother Brown!" Dickensian slapstick of their scenes fell flat with me.

Hugh Jackman gives a dramatically + musically convincing portrayal of Jean Valjean with only the slightest of reservations about his voice in "Bring Him Home", which he nonetheless copes with admirably, despite its fiendishly high register. I've been a big fan of his ever since Aronofsky's "The Fountain" in which he gives a performance as emotionally raw as anything I have ever seen a male actor give.

There was a wonderful moment for me near the beginning of the film when Valjean arrives at the residence of the Bishop of Digne (the aforementioned scene). I suddenly realised that the Bishop was being played by none other than the legendary Colm Willkinson, the great Irish stage musical performer who opened the first London production of the show in the mid-'80s as Valjean and has been associated with the role ever since, transferring it to Broadway before return to London with it in the early '90s. He was the Valjean I saw on stage, and in my opinion at the time easily the best thing about the production. Seeing him as the Bishop touchingly hand the pair of candlesticks to the thief Valjean (Jackman) for him to keep one sensed a changing of the guard and his own seal of approval. A lovely touch on behalf of the casting team and producers.

See here for brief interviews with both actors.

It is a shamelessly manipulative film on an emotional level, especially the ending, but it, I think, simply enhancing the melodramatic power of the original musical. It is also a touchingly human story of forgiveness and redemption... just don't forget the box of tissues!

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