Based on the book by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, Les Misérables has been running as a musical on the London stage since 1985. Seen by 60 million people worldwide (according to its website) it is without doubt one of the world’s most popular stage productions, and has toured the far corners of the globe with its powerful, haunting music and deeply human, bitter-sweet story.
Written by Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), the story follows Valjean’s journey of redemption.
Sentenced to 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family, the stolid, pious Valjean breaks parole upon his release and goes on to become a respectable small-town mayor under an assumed name. But he’s pursued through the decades by the unstoppable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Along the way, Valjean adopts Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen, as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a doomed prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), to whom Valjean once did an unintentional injustice.
Eventually, Valjean and his adopted daughter will get caught up in the chaos of the 1832 Paris rebellion, as the grown Cosette falls for a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is in turn pined over by Eponine (Samantha Barks), a luckless innkeeper’s daughter. As Javert closes in on Valjean, the first shots of the resurgent revolution are fired and the barricades begin to rise.
The original writers of the musical were determined to remove much of the Christian metaphor from Hugo’s prose. Film has a way of reinstating those connections through a more complex visual context.
As directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) the film is rich with a layer of visual metaphor as it explores the themes of grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, law and betrayal.
As the film opens Valjean sings “Look Down”, set against a digitally enhanced shipping port, he helps haul an enormous ship into a dock. The prisoners pull on ropes, while singing during a lashing rain, with Javert glaring down at them.
By the time the scene ends, Valjean hasn’t just been handed his release papers after 19 years as a prisoner, he has also become a Christ figure, hoisting a huge wooden flagpole on to his shoulder.
Javert similarly is not black and white as the villain; instead he is a man conflicted by law, duty and resolve. Unable to accept the grace and mercy of Valjean, the film literally (in a few well shot scenes) has Javert walking the precipice of his decision to pursue Valjean.
Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live instead of lip-syncing, through not new to cinema, is what gives the film much needed power over its runtime of two and half hours.
The film’s epic feel (augmented through CGI) is something the stage can never really duplicate, but this never detracts from the each character’s performance. The camera moves from epic to intimate cleverly to underscore the emotional impact of the story.
The performances are uniformly excellent from the smallest part to the largest, with Jackman the stand-out as the huge-hearted Valjean. His ability to add nuance to the songs that have been around for decades helps breath new life into this film adaptation.
Every actor has a show-stopping tune, but it’s perhaps Jackman and Hathaway who give the film its heart as they sing “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
- Describe Valjean’s outlook when he is released from prison. How does that change throughout the film? What are the things that change him?
- Do you think Valjean should have gone to prison for breaking his parole? What is the balance of grace and law? How do you decide which one wins in any given situation?
- Has an act of grace from another ever transformed your life?
- Why does being shown mercy have such a different impact on Javert’s life? What does this tell us about his paradigm and his basic understanding of law and life?
- Why doesn’t Valjean tell Cosette about his past? Do you think this is a wise decision or not?
- If you have seen the stage production of Les Miserables, which do you now like better? If you’ve also read the book, how would you rank all three?