Reconsideration: Les Miserables (Part 1)

It's been a long time since I revisited and examined an Oscar nominated performance (or movie) to see if my previously set in stone opinions had changed over time. In the absence of continuing what first meant to be a series, I was genuinely lost about which movies to put up for selection. My mind had been glued to the notion that all of my previous rants and raves were spot-on.

Reconsideration is far from over. Until recently I began developing more and more films and opinions I wanted to give a second chance. So, now it's back! Similar to my first post about Kate Winslet's Best Ac tress Oscar performance for The Reader, I'm returning to a film I didn't favor and see if my perspective has changed: Les Miserables.


Not The Happy Go Lucky Musical I Was Looking For

In 2012 when Les Miserables was released, my first impression was taken hostage by the fact that the movie was pretty much a bummer. A musical and emotional contest of the worst plights during the French Revolution and it's depressing - I should have seen all the signs right?

Wrong. I thought it was going to be upbeat. Call me obtuse but I had no interest in researching the musical before seeing it. Any aspiring music artist I had ever seen make a cover of I Dreamed A Dream crooned about their hopes being dashed to the wayside with robust optimism. Within the first musical sequence of Valjean's Siloloquy, where Valjean debates about how the world has taught him to live with hate, I ended up spending the next two hours bored and entertaining myself. It was a challenge for me to go on without thinking about how other musicals were so cheerful and happy-go-lucky brought to us by that golden horizon of Broadway song and dance.

It's a moral imperative for me to also mention here that I smelled the Oscar hype wafting through almost a year before its official release. A leaked version of Anne Hathaway's raw take of I Dreamed A Dream added to a faux trailer was leaked online. Mountainous buzz was sparked, and I wasn't very much bothered by the Princess of Genovia getting her due.

My issue was more or less the gratuitous unrelenting praise for director Tom Hooper's choice to record his cast singing live rather than in a studio. The entire industry (actors, studios, critics, not even my family) never let us forget this, and in doing so, important performances by the entire cast was all but forgotten. The movie gained a presence that a musical of this size had never been achieved before. That rubbed me the wrong way considering the countless musicals throughout history that fought multiple hurdles to earn their success.

And then there was the film itself. It's not the perfect specimen of filmmaking ever created as it was touted to be. I didn't have an urge to build a emotional barricade around its faults to prevent appreciating its achievements, but I just wasn't in love with many aspects of it.

Preferred Performances Switch-A-Roo

For nineteen years Jean Valjean is held as prisoner for stealing a loaf of bread. Once he is deemed free but not free by the law-hearted lion Javert (Russell Crowe), the tag as a thief is has branded him for life. His identification papers will forever condemn his status in life, not for the man he is but for the one wrong act he committed.

At a moment of desperation receiving care by a priest, Valjean is caught trying to steal his silver candlesticks (didn't learn our lesson, did we?). Yet the priest releases him from the local authorities saying the candlesticks had been a gift. Valjean takes the opportunity of selfless love offered to him to do something worthwhile with his life. It's like an Oprah make-over episode in the decrepit France slums.

If you can believe it, my heartstrings weren't ripped from my body from the two performances by Hugh Jackma. At the time I couldn't pinpoint why I remained emotionally disconnected. Rather than immersing myself in the characters' tragedy, I was off-put by it and felt manipulated by Hooper's direction to stick the camera up Hugh Jackman's nose whiskers.

What took time for me to understand was the raw caliber of Hugh Jackman's performance. I think unless you're a robot you'll probably concur. Standing in the priests' rectory Valjean is at battle with himself because a world that has treated him so cruelly, a stranger could bestow upon him powerful forgiveness and grace. Jackmans' mesmorizing, unforgivable, and raw soliloquy is intimidating for the mere fact that the camera never leaves his side. From there his performance reaches new emotional heights over and over again as Valjean tries to escape Javert's persistent hunt.

Transforming into Monsieur le Mayor, a wealthy and selfless mayor of a small town, Valjean is once again given an opportunity to pass on the grace that was once given to him. When one of his factory workers Fantine is fired and cast out into the world, her daughter Cosette is left without anyone to provide for her. Like Valjean, the world took the young mother for granted, tossed her aside like yesterday's meat, and kept pummeling forward. Only she has no chance of fighting back and is abandoned to become a prostitute. It's by a miracle that Monsieur le Mayor discovers her dying from tuberculosis, aids her to a hospital and promises to provide for her daughter Cosette before she passes away.

I was emotional for Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed A Dream when I first saw it, but it took me too long a time to grow a loss for words. Her performance was once creamed by critics such as myself because she is only in the film for fifteen minutes. At the height of the films' release it seemed a major issue. For someone who had no knowledge of the story background, or its musical history, and the expectations of Hathaway's performance, assumptions soared that her performance would be a major starring role like Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.

What I missed that first pivotal time around is that Anne Hathaway's Fantine only needed fifteen minutes of screen time for hearts to be broken; for the playing field of 'Whose Performance Is Noteworthy' to be leveled and her name to be the first one jotted down. And, to never forget it. At once when you consider that her most memorable sequence was filmed for hours on end to the perfect rendition that made it passed the cutting room floor, it's a miracle to behold.

The one musical sequence I declared as my favorite was Master of the House featuring Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. As the Thénardiers, they portray a pair of innkeepers letting Cosette live in their filthy quarters pretty much as a slave. They swindle everyone and everything that remotely arrives anywhere near their doorstep. At the time I thought their performance was exactly what the film needed...until I watched 25th Anniversary edition and realized what a poor translation this actually was. Once I saw Mr. Matt Lucas as Monsieur Thénardier, Sasha Baron Cohen is still entertaining but quite dull.

I'm not sure if Hooper didn't know how to bring this scene to the screen, but it was evident that it needed to be more uplifting. The Thénardiers symbolize a class of people who try anything to get by other than honest hard work. They are brought down by society to become drunkards, miscreants, and completely unconscious to their vile behavior. They are getting by to get by, but production wise they are not meant to be tragic. They aren't meant to blend in with the other numbers and are meant to stand out in drunkenly and humorously.

The movie version in fact has no personality or liveliness. We see their under-handedness of dolling out urinated beverages to their guests and slipping their hands into every pocket for every and any kind of loose change they can get their grubs on. But the scene has no energy. Their celebration of looting is downright duddy, and Carter's laidback effort, Cohen's zaniness, and Hooper's ambitions doesn't aid the scene as it really should.

At the halfway mark, author Hugh Victors' French Revolution is opened up with young soldiers who are amorously dueling the government over the conditions of the country's repressed and omitted souls. Young Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) is grown up to the tender of age of sixteen, and falls in love with one of the barricade boys, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). In this growing romance Eponine (Samantha Barks), daughter of Thénardiers, is homeless, and hopeless except for her affection for Marius as well.

From my initial viewing to now, this part of the film is still a whole bunch of characters arriving on the screen to push the movie to a longer running time. I feel horrible for saying and even regarding this scene in such a lazy way. The repetitiveness of Valjean on the lamb from Javert makes my patience grow weary. Emotionally, I have nothing left to offer the poor idealistic young adults who are conviction-happy and trying to defeat the ruling class from beating them into a pulp of poverty.

However, I will say musically this might by my favorite aspect in the film. As the rebel fighters are collaborating about their point of attack, and Marius has been swooned from the battlefield to Cossette's chirping heart, ABC Cafe / Red and Black is addictive. In the scenes that pervade misfortune and affliction, in this one scene hope sparks. The human spirit's heartbreak is turned on its doom and gloom head, and we are finally gifted with a glimpse of passion for a world about to dawn. While the sequence of young lovers chirping and lamenting about their newfound passion and strides makes the film a bit time consuming, I love the simple brilliance of the young cast whose characters to rule life with their hearts against the world's harsh intimidation.

Hooper's (Mis)Direction

Adapting the cinematic style from his first Oscar victory The King's Speech, Director Tom Hooper's experiment wasn't completely a triumph. With unbridled honesty, when most directors allow their actors space between themselves and the camera, Hooper invades their personal space for the films entirety.

In certain musical sequences this technique works because a lack of movement from the actors proves not to be a distraction. For example, Fantine's I Dreamed A Dream or Marius' Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. Very much like the anniversary theater performances, the characters need a point in physical space to condemn themselves or life's brutal hand-outs. The material of the film itself is not of the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals we are used to, or even Broadway-happy Chicago (2001). Hooper wanted to make sure the anguished characters mourned their sacrifices up, close and personal to us, and it proves to be beautiful as well as adds devastation to the story.

As the audience though we also needed more room to breathe. This isn't to say that the entire film is spent up Hugh Jackman's nose whiskers, but it comes pretty close. If Hooper's aim overall was to create intimacy with Victor's novel, the unrestrained candor is something you can't escape. He keeps his cast on a physical leash but lets their emotional cannons fly.

This goes back to the double-handedness of Master of the House. Scenes that did not inhibit the same dramatic strokes like the young soldiers dying at the barricade or Javerts' lament about falling from grace suffer greatly. Hooper doesn't know exactly where to pinpoint the camera so we the audience can take a step back. When you add characters' squalor, a story of the spirit suffering through triumph and heartache, the production is claustrophobic. The acting itself and the casts' emotionality more than compensate for the rather tight spaces. Its overall vision comes off as profound but also equally imposing and almost manipulative.

On A Personal Note

Since time had passed from first seeing Les Miserables in December 2012 and publishing this post, my family was tested with several tremendous challenges during the year. One of them being that after my father abruptly left us more than a year ago in tremendous debt, we were subjected to living with landlords who felt they had a right to our finances. The time we spent with them was an absolute hell to say the least. We were wrongfully evicted (and rightfully won) but they foreclosed on the house we were renting from and were almost thrown into homelessness.

For months we searched and shared our plight to so-called friends in our neighborhood, lawyers for legal counsel, even school acquaintances. We were hoping against all hope a forgiving person would overlook my father's transgressions of ruining my mother's credit and find it in their hearts to let us rent from them. The clock was nearly ticked out; we were looking to put our stuff into storage, move into a motel, and try to go to work and go to school - if we could even survive that before going to a homeless shelter.

It was during this part of the summer that Les Miserables took on a different meaning for me. Jean Valjean became a character I understood more than other through his trials and journey. Until quite literally a miracle occurred, and we were able to secure another place within the last week of real estate kicking us out of our house, several of the characters' challenges for love, hope, and dreams became more relative to me. This Reconsideration post was about watching a movie to see if a different perspective arrived. But also I realized how time has a way of not only changing point of views but the people that hold them too. Some movies you just know you'll love the second you sit down to watch it. Others need time to grow a space in your heart and to reside there after the passing of Oscar bait-time.

If you may note the title of this post says Part 1. So please stay tuned for Reconsideration: Les Miserables (Part 2)! P.S. Russell Crowe's performance will be considered for a separate Reconsideration.

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