Tag Archives: Les Misérables

Les Miserables (2012) film review: Reboot

9 Sep

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.

“Les Misérables” (2012), or, the Problem of Putting an Epic (Musical) on Film: A Review

30 Dec

This season offered moviegoers adaptations of two sprawling, classic novels, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. They represent two rather different solutions to the inevitable problems of selection and compression when one is dealing with such huge stories. Both novels unfold over some time in their fictional worlds and, likewise, take the attentive reader days, months, or even years to absorb fully. But movies have only two or three hours to lay out the essentials and take the reader from emotional point A to point B, or to points X, Y, and Z.

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In Les Misérables, the selection and compression of incident was given in advance by the adaptation for the stage, Boublil, Schönberg, and Kretzmer’s hugely successful musical. The undulating succession of emotional lows and peaks which Victor Hugo wrote are all here with a song to embody each. But is this a help to the film or too big a constraint on the pace of storytelling in a medium so different from the stage?  The stage is a place where scenes can be rotated into view or merely suggested with a backdrop or a few props, where action is limited by space, and where audience and actors agree that a character may stop, lift us up (with the strength of a Jean Valjean!), and symbolically carry us through the emotional journey of a song.  In a film, especially one that is avowedly “realistic” in its aim, the agreement is a bit different. The story is told scene by scene at more or less the pace of life; gaps in time–sometimes huge ones–serve the purpose of compression. The screenwriter’s and film director’s arts involve first selecting the scenes that will piece together the narrative and then setting them up (requiring again a whole universe of choices) for the camera to capture.

In Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the succession of songs seems to force a certain staccato pace on the events, as if they must be reeled out quickly before the song is over. Because this cuts against the grain of realism in what the eye sees, the film seems oddly rushed and busy, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, mirrors this pace in his valiant, breathy singing.  Fantine’s fall from seamstress to prostitute, after selling her locket, hair, and teeth, apparently occurs all in the same day, in the space of a few desperate hours, while the song that brackets it takes mere minutes.  The cuts and scene changes that permit the illusion of the passage of time, in a fine version such as the 1998 nonmusical film (starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman), are not available here.

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Perhaps the frenetic pace of Fantine’s degradation conveys its tragedy, but as a viewer I was ironically grateful when the motion ceased while she sang “I dreamed a dream”–this song, both in the musical and in the film, bestowed the gift of time, room to contemplate all her character had undergone and would yet suffer.

Does this mean that a sung-through musical is not possible on film? Not at all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, is successful precisely because it never feels rushed or constrained by the songs; its dreamy quality matches song to action in a way that is awe-inspiring, justifying the admiration this film has received. For Les Mis, Hooper faced the doubly difficult task of adapting an adaptation, and he likely felt an obligation to include all the songs from the musical out of respect for its fans;  but this ready-made “screenplay,” in song form, short-circuited the possibility of making a musical better adapted to screen storytelling.

In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the artistic tables are turned. Other films to this point have used conventional realism and judicious scene selection to solve the problem of compressing Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece. Wright, however, used the freedoms and conventions of the stage to make a brilliantly unconventional adaptation.

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Placing his actors on and off a theater stage allowed abrupt scene changes and mere suggestions of incidents that were not out of place but rather served the emotional impact of the story. When Vronsky’s horse suddenly and fatally tumbled off the stage, the viewer was jarred into real shock comparable to Anna’s, and “realism” of a very different sort was managed creatively (such a fall might indeed break a horse’s back or crush its rider). Yet it is not real–it’s a film, and we knew that “no animals were harmed in the making.” It’s an illusion achieved with cuts, special effects, and clever choices, part of the overarching illusion that the whole story can be recounted before the viewers’ eyes. Wright straddled film and theater, moving between them in a way that was surprising and constantly fresh, and a sophisticated commentary on both.

But Les Mis made a different set of choices: film realism and live singing. It has many strengths within those confines, not least of which is a complete realization of the stage musical. It fleshes out the action in epic proportions, to the point of floating a full-size galley (so it seems) for prisoner Jean Valjean to sweat and pull and sing into harbor. On this grand epic canvas, several other performances stood out and deserve mention. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Russell Crowe (Javert) found each of their character’s genuine center, and both sang very effectively. Anne will likely bring home many well-merited awards, probably an Oscar. Amanda Seyfried sang the aerial notes of Cosette with natural beauty and sincerity, and I would have wished more screen time for her.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius), hitherto best known for playing Jack in The Pillars of the Earth, was a bracing surprise, for his screen charisma and excellent singing. But the biggest and most welcome surprise was the cameo of Colm Wilkinson as M. Myriel, the saintly bishop whose gifts of candlesticks and forgiveness purchased Jean Valjean’s soul for God, launching the miracle of his new life and pilgrimage of faith. Wilkinson reminds us of the possible heights an actor can reach in portraying the soul of a great man. Hugh Jackman embraces this challenge wholeheartedly and seems to understand the moral choices that beset Jean Valjean as well as the prayerfulness with which he approached those choices. As it did for Wilkinson in the stage musical, Jackman’s best moment arrived in the pivotal song, “Bring Him Home.” And so Jackman fulfilled the role, especially its greater physical demands in the film. Was he a “revelation” in the role? Perhaps not. But like Jean Valjean, he proved himself utterly faithful to it.

Related post:

The Literary Work as a Place of Pilgrimage

10 Jun

Pilgrimage is always an inward journey…” ~Huston Smith, from his Foreword to The Art of Pilgrimage


When we think of making a literary pilgrimage, two main categories spring to mind. First, we may set out to visit a place connected with a favorite author, that author’s home or the place where she or he created the novels, poems, or plays that now draw us into that writer’s mental and emotional orbit. Going to Shakespeare’s Stratford, Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, Margaret Mitchell’s home in Atlanta, or the Brontës’ Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England, would be examples of this type of pilgrimage.

Second, literary works can inspire readers to visit a place associated with events within the fictional world. Sherlockians wishing to pay a call at 221b Baker Street, London, can visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum, now bearing that address. Visitors to Verona who are fans of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be directed to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) on the Via Capello and even plan a wedding there featuring a kiss on Juliet’s balcony. (The film Letters to Juliet envisioned just such a pilgrimage.) Jane Austen’s devoted readers who might wish to visit Bath, London, or other English locations with a view to discovering more about the settings in her novels will find a ready tour guide in Julie Wakefield, whose austenonly website provides abundant detail on locations in the novels and in their film and television adaptations (as well as key places in the author’s life)–enough for a lifetime of Austenian pilgrimage.

When the settings of the fictional world are themselves fictional, making a pilgrimage becomes a little more difficult, but surely not impossible. Walt Disney made it easy to visit Cinderella’s castle, and trips to Baum’s Oz or Tolkien’s Middle-earth are available online for virtual visitors. After reading Goddessinsepia’s essay on the Diogenes Club, I feel a little closer to having visited this favorite fictional haunt of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. The grave of Jean Valjean presents an interesting case: I can visit the famous cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, but I must merely imagine the unmarked burial plot of Victor Hugo’s most affecting character.

I would like to suggest a third category in which the literary work itself is the place of pilgrimage, both the destination and the road to get there, and the act of reading is the pilgrim’s journey. Certainly, within this category I would have to include the physical literary object itself–often a manuscript or first edition–which can generate much interest on its own and draw visitors who simply want to view it. Recently, the last four chapters of the manuscript for Gone With the Wind came to light in a library in Connecticut, discovered by Ellen F. Brown (watch her CBS interview), author of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. The manuscript has “come home” to Atlanta, where visitors to the Atlanta History Center can view Mitchell’s handwritten changes to the typescript. Both everyday readers and specialists may get a deeper understanding of the novel from such an artefact.

Yet it is the inward journey to the literary work that I want to focus on now. Whenever we pick up a book or story or poem (or watch a play unfold), we may find, often unexpectedly, that it has taken hold of us at a deep level. It seems to be asking us a question, perhaps one of sacred importance, and inviting us to follow through to find the answer. That is when reading (or, in some case, viewing) becomes a sort of pilgrimage. How does this play out, and how can we get the most from our pilgrim quest to a literary work?

For this, I want to consult a wonderful guidebook, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau.

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Cousineau organizes his reflections on the soul-nourishing art of pilgrimage according to seven stages of the hero’s journey, made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell (e.g., The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Let me highlight Cousineau’s stages of pilgrimage as if we are visiting (reading!) a novel. I will take as my example a case in which reading became a pilgrimage for me.

I. The Longing–I do not recall when I first heard of the book Les Misérables, but I do recall learning, probably from my mother, of its opening premise: that a poor man, Jean Valjean, who stole bread for his family, suffered long imprisonment. The simple injustice set up a longing and a curiosity to learn more. Many years followed before…

II. The Call–On a long car trip west, I had packed an audio cassette of the Mercury Theatre radio play of Les Misérables, with the sonorous voice of Orson Welles bringing Jean Valjean to life as I drove across the endless plains of Nebraska. After experiencing this play, I knew I had to read the book. (For many people, the Call for this book might have come differently, perhaps through seeing the Boublil-Schönberg musical  of “Les Mis” on stage or in a PBS broadcast concert.)

III. Departure–While preparing to write The Fictional 100, I began a thorough reading of Hugo’s hefty masterpiece in earnest. I chose the Signet Classic paperback.

IV. The Pilgrim’s WayLes Misérables affords the reader setting off on this long journey some almost magically moving scenes, starting with an account of Jean Valjean’s imprisonment, four escapes, and reimprisonments, showing what kind of changed and hardened man emerged from 19 years chained in the galleys; knowing this about him makes his life-changing encounter with the saintly Bishop Myriel all the more amazing. My first tears came. Moving toward the deep heart of this long novel, some guiding words from Phil Cousineau about the Pilgrim’s Way seem very appropriate:

“Remember, those who don’t ask essential questions don’t find what’s most authentic. The soul of your pilgrimage, the heart of your destination, disappears, will be invisible, like the Grail Castle if you are too afraid or too proud to appear as you really are at the moment–someone far, far from home, without all the answers, without the soul map to the city. Those who refuse to ask vital questions along the way pay the consequence, either by getting lost or by settling for the superficial…” (p.120)

V. The Labyrinth–In The Inferno, Dante starts his pilgrimage in the labyrinthine “dark wood” in the middle of life, but for most books, most readers will be surprised to discover themselves in the labyrinth, looking around, trying to find their way forward, or the way back. Les Misérables was indeed a place far, far from home and I didn’t have the whole map. The political and social upheaval in which the novel is set was as complex as the network of Paris sewers, and while Hugo proved to be an excellent guide, providing fascinating historical background, it was also wise to consult other sources and opinions on these and other matters concerning the novel. At the psychological level, one essential question became understanding my contradictory feelings about Javert. Javert is so well-drawn, and we are given so much access to his thoughts, I found myself sympathizing with him at many points, especially as he careened toward tragedy.  But I also knew that his rule-bound outlook and reliance on moral absolutes caused much suffering. Was my sympathy for him by the author’s design or a product of my own inclination to “play by the rules”? I had to pay attention to questions such as this, if I wished to deepen my journey.

VI. Arrival–Emerging from the Labyrinth and arriving at the end of this book meant arriving at the end of Valjean’s life, and attending at his bedside. The exhilaration of Arrival was tempered by the sense of loss. 

VII. Bringing Back the Boon–I wouldn’t call finishing Les Misérables heroic, but I did finish, so what did I learn? What boon did I bring back? Phil Cousineau writes: “The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.” I brought back my lived experience with this novel–I remember when I cried, when I forgot I was reading rather than living the story, when I was confused and had to go back a few chapters. I brought back my long acquaintance with Jean Valjean. I brought back a spiritually uplifting story of redemption and forgiveness.  Was this biography of a soul too ideal? Mario Vargas Llosa speaks in its favor, explaining that the book offers The Temptation of the Impossible. I returned from this pilgrimage wanting to turn such impossibility into a living truth.

The occasion for making a pilgrimage to a literary work can be a first reading or a rereading. LifetimeReader has set herself a very ambitious plan of first readings of classics that she has never read or didn’t have time before to engage with fully. She experienced the Call to undertake “A Personal Odyssey” and on January 1, 2011, she launched her Departure with a review of Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, in which she writes:

“A classic, as Calvino says, can come “to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans” and “you cannot remain indifferent.”  Books such as the ones I have put on my list have the potential to be life altering–and at the same time, foster connection between me and the generations on both sides.” ~LifetimeReader

It is wonderful to read what she is discovering along her Pilgrim’s Way, with its many points of Arrival and its Boons of storytelling brought back.

Anniversaries mark opportunities to make a pilgrimage as a return trip to a favorite literary work. June 2011 is the 75th Anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, and fans are observing it with all the types of literary pilgrimage we have described. In the Preface to the 75th Anniversary Edition, novelist Pat Conroy reports that his mother reread the novel straight through every year; clearly, she didn’t need any special anniversary to revisit her favorite book.

Jane Austen’s fans also have a special gift for pilgrimage, and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011, announced by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, is a fine example. I haven’t taken up the challenge myself, but I loved Jane Greensmith’s account of her Umpteenth Reading of Sense and Sensibility. She hones in on a little-noticed passage with very much to say about how readers judge (and misjudge) characters and, likewise, how people judge (and misjudge) people in real life. A boon indeed.

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