I watched Les Miserables–Tom Hooper’s ambitious film of the famous musical–on TV this afternoon, and, as is so often the case, a second look gave me quite a different experience. The first time I saw it in a theater for its Christmas release, and I reported (in my first review) being disturbed by the pacing of the film which felt too compressed to me, but this second viewing seemed to repair whatever I had felt was amiss. Or rather, I as a viewer had changed and caught up with it. To borrow a line from Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (describing to Wickham her changed feelings for Darcy): “When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that his mind or his manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.” Knowing this film better now, I understand better how much it accomplished, transferring a stage musical to real settings and yet not straying from the musical’s design or the story’s emotional heart.
Eddie Redmayne, as Marius, stood out immediately as a welcome surprise, and my second viewing only confirmed and increased my estimation of what he brought to the role. His singing was strong and well unified with his acting, which was fresh, flexible, and sincere.
Samantha Barks as Eponine impressed me much more upon second viewing. Both in voice and demeanor, she conveyed her anguish over every word from Marius about Cosette. She seemed to shrink in size as her hopes were more surely disappointed. Her death scene, being comforted by Marius, was tender and dignified, as she sang the one song that could turn maudlin if not handled well. Here’s a nice still photo from the film showing Redmayne and Barks together.
Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean improves markedly over the course of the film, reaching its peak as the elder, dying father. The first time I was focused on moments that seemed rushed or jarring but a second screening left me noticing more scenes I found satisfying, such as his mercy and release of Javert at the barricades and his confession to Marius. Russell Crowe’s Javert still strikes me as grave and deliberate, and perfectly grounded in his character. His singing is solid and at times poignant; because it was never showy, I don’t think he got the credit he deserved.
With a work of art such as Les Miserables, it takes more than one viewing to leave behind other instantiations of the story that one holds dear. Only then can we truly see what is right in front of us.