When Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables came out in 2012, it inspired me to sing “Who Am I?” and “I Dreamed a Dream” in a couple of recitals during the remaining months of my singing lessons. My voice teacher even took a group to see the stage show live in 2013. In fact, that show was the last time until this review I saw the musical in any form as the last time I watched the film before then, it came off as really contrived and rushed.
That’s why, comparing its flaws to its surpassing merits, I now consider it less masterful than transcendent.
It’s true that it fits in a lot of story, the decades-spanning, 19th-century period epic of the redemption of Jean Valjean, even for a 2½-hour-long runtime. It’s also true that I find its romantic subplot between two young adults so farfetched that it puts the wonkiest love stories in any Disney movie to shame.
Even so, Tom Hooper’s direction keeps me in the story’s grip. Hooper uses wide shots to establish the impressive set design only when necessary; never does he choose dazzling us with production values over immersing us in the emotions of the characters in a way a stage show can’t, through constant use of closeups. The makeup department is never afraid to cover the leads with grime and grit, and the unconventional live onset singing, while not as impressive as the voices I heard onstage, works for the film’s rawness.
Hardly a word of dialogue is spoken. Conversations are almost always sung. However, there are plenty of interior monologues that give us insights not only into the characters’ mindsets but also into their souls, especially those of Valjean and the antagonistic Inspector Javert, two men devout in Catholicism yet with two very different relationships with God.
Javert believes it’s his mission to inflict God’s judgement on those who break the law, those like Valjean whose release from a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew is where the story begins. Valjean, however, through the hospitality of a bishop who takes him in after his release, learns over the years to convey God’s mercy, especially through adopting Cosette, child of fired worker-turned-prostitute Fantine, after her mother passes in the first act. In addition to these men who use different aspects of faith to motivate their lives, the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who ‘care’ for Cosette while her mother’s working, use faith as a coverup for the ways they con their customers.
Valjean and Fantine suffer greatly. We see them at their absolute lowest points. Yet, their stories remind us of the redemptive power of suffering and the saving power of repentance. But not only does the film rivetingly explore the question of justice versus mercy but also the questions of hope versus despair, poverty versus wealth, and citizens versus government.
Aside from the ridiculous romance, the film’s biggest hiccup is the Thenardiers, particularly their “Master of the House” number. While the film delicately recounts Fantine’s desperate fall into prostitution, “Master of the House” humorously indulges in the Thenardiers’ vulgar business practices in ways that couldn’t be pulled off onstage. It’s the one song I don’t mind skipping.
Still, these flaws can’t diminish Les Miserables‘s emotional and spiritual power. It’s like no other musical—nay, film—I’ve seen, less a film and more an experience.