Les Miserables or What Goes Around, Comes Around

Posted by Gail Gabrielson at 2 January 2013

Category: Memoir, Review

I went to the movie musical version of “Les Miserables,” or what I’d title, “What Goes Around, Comes Around.” It’s really a lesson for everyone. If you’re going to make a musical, for heaven’s sake, hire singers. OK, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway did an admirable job, considering they aren’t normally considered singers. Russell Crowe? Eh, not so much. It would have been MUCH better had the casting people found someone with a powerful voice for that role.

I get what the director was trying to do. He wanted the actors to sing their hearts out on screen – one take, one camera, no lip-synching afterwards in a sound stage. And this movie was 99 percent music. I could probably count on two hands the number of words that were actually spoken. The actors did a fine job of acting — they just had to learn the music to go with it.

Amanda Seyfried, whom I recognized from the movie “Mama Mia!” did an outstanding job as the adult Cosette. In fact, I thought her singing was better in this movie than the previous. She has a sweet voice and was sometimes overshadowed by the more mature voices in “Mama Mia!”

The big surprise was Eddie Redmayne, who plays the role of Marius. His sweet face perfectly captures the innocence of Marius who falls for the equally innocent Cosette. When I realized I could see his freckles in those close-ups of him singing, I started looking at all the other characters. They didn’t have make-up on — only what would have made them look more realistic or comic, as the situation dictated.

The actors underwent transformations as the starving criminals or prostitutes. Jackman and Hathaway both dieted to get that hungry look. Hathaway also cut her hair for the role, since Fantine sells her hair. (In a very early — we’re talking 1930′s French version — of Les Mis, the character of Fantine sells her FRONT teeth, not molars as in this version. That Fantine appears even more tragic.)

OK, this movie version of the musical was astounding in many ways. I’m sure it will win awards and become a classic. And now that I’ve analyzed the mechanics of it, let me talk about the story itself. “Les Miserables,” translated into English in one version as “The Wretched Man,” centers around Jean Valjean. He steals a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her child, and is sentenced to four years of hard labor. Then he earns more years for trying to escape — 19 years total.

When he is finally released, he cannot get work or even a place to stay because of his criminal background. Valjean is taken in by a priest, who feeds him and gives him a warm bed to sleep in. Valjean repays this kindness by stealing the silver. He is brought back by the police, but the priest tells them that yes, he gave Valjean his silver, but left behind the best part — a pair of silver candlesticks.

The priest adds the candlesticks to his bag and tells the police to release him. The priest also tells Valjean to make good use of his second chance. In an anguished scene in a chapel, Valjean talks to God and decides to be a better man. When we next see him, he is the prosperous owner of a factory, recently elected mayor of the town. And here comes his nemesis, Javert, who has been appointed constable of the town. He has no idea that this renamed man was Prisoner 24601.

At the same time, Fantine is fired from the same factory on a whim by the foreman who has been sexual harassing his employees. Here’s where karma steps in. Fantine can’t afford to send money to the innkeeper couple for taking care of her daughter anymore, so she falls back on prostitution and ultimately dies, but not before being rescued by Valjean, who vows he will take care of her daughter. She dies in the hospital, knowing that her sacrifice was worthwhile.

In a feat of strength to rescue another man, Valjean tips his hand; Javert knows he’s the criminal. Valjean promises he will come back once he’s found Cosette. Valjean goes to the innkeeper couple, presents them with a fortune and takes Cosette home with him. He reinvents himself again — taking another new name and raising Cosette with newfound love. The song that Valjean sings in the retreating carriage is one that’s not included on some of the CD highlights I’ve heard.

Meanwhile in France, young men are pushing for revolution — among them Marius, who is the grandson of a man high in the government. He’s been disowned by his grandfather and lives in the same building as an impoverished family. Guess who? It’s the innkeeper couple and their not-so-pampered-anymore daughters and small son. Even though they received a fortune from Valjean, here they are in Paris, poorer than they were when they owned the inn and stole from all their guests. Karma at work.

Their daughter Eponine has fallen hard for Marius and will do anything for him, including find out who that enchanting young woman is that he spies handing out coins to the poor with her father. It’s Cosette and Valjean, doing what they can for the poor. Valjean still has the candlesticks and remembers his promise to help others.

He’s really torn then when he finds out that a man alleged to be Jean Valjean has been captured and is on trial. Does he let the man go to prison for his sins, or step forward and tell the truth? Valjean goes to the court, tells them who he is, and then escapes again because he has to make sure Cosette will be safe. He and Cosette go to another safe house. She leaves behind a letter for Marius which is intercepted by Eponine.

Marius is teased by his companions about being in love, and is told that he must decide whether he’s going to die for the revolution or live for his love. Valjean finds out about the young man, and will do whatever necessary to save him for Cosette. He goes to the barricade, where the revolutionists have discovered Javert has been spying on them for the king. Valjean asks to “take care” of the spy, and then sets him free.

Javert, who has followed Valjean ruthlessly, has been given a second chance. Valjean scoops up an injured Marius and drags him through the Paris sewers to save his life. Valjean takes him to his grandfather’s house, where the old man relents and accepts the younger man. Marius also has the letter from Cosette, given to him when Eponine dies at the barricade. Another subtitle for this movie could be, “Yeah, Almost Everyone Dies.”

Valjean hangs back when Marius and Cosette marry — he doesn’t want to be discovered again and ruin the reputation of his foster daughter. But Cosette, who has been raised by a good man, finds Valjean at the convent where he is dying from his injuries at the barricade. He has fulfilled his promise — to take care of Cosette and to be a better man.

He has become such a good man that the angel Fantine comes to him and assures him of his place in heaven. Meanwhile, the misguided Javert has trouble accepting the fact that a mere criminal could act so selflessly and spare his life. He hurls himself into the canal. By committing suicide, Javert has — according to some doctrine — condemned his soul to purgatory. He was a righteous man, but righteous by man’s standards, not God’s standards.

The innkeeper couple, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, try to crash the wedding, but are intercepted by the now-wise Marius. They show Marius the ring that was stolen from him when Valjean was wading through the sewers, and Marius rightly realizes that Valjean saved his life.

Jean Valjean felt like an animal when he was in prison, and was subjected to more poor treatment afterwards. It wasn’t until the priest treated him as a human that Valjean felt human again. Javert was strict about adhering to the law, and that law compelled him to mete out his own punishment.

So what other morals are to be found within Les Miserables? Make good choices. Fantine’s husband (boyfriend?) left them when the going got tough, so Fantine was forced to find someone else to take her daughter. She didn’t find a great place for little Cosette. The innkeeper couple treated her like a slave — keeping her working and insisting that Fantine pay more for her care. Eponine didn’t have the self-esteem to consider herself an equal to Marius, so she died without ever having her love returned. Marius fell in with some revolutionaries, and might have been martyred with them except for Valjean’s intervention.

Sometimes a child will lead them. Eponine’s little brother was a useful asset to the revolutionaries. He pointed out the spy Javert and collected ammunition from the fallen soldiers, knowing that the other soldiers were unlikely to shoot an unarmed child. (Unfortunately, someone did shoot him.) He also rallied the revolutionaries when they were thinking about giving up.

No matter how many times I see this story on stage or on screen, the characters and their stories will last. The music will live in me always, and thanks to the movie screen, more people will get to see this story.

 

 

 

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