“Les Miserables” translates splendidly from stage to screen

"Les Mis" the movie packs enormous star power and emotional force – bu' those Cockney accents, gov'nor? Why?

By - Dec 20th, 2012 11:51 pm
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Having seen the stage play, I was curious how Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables would work on screen. The answer: splendidly, although there are a few irritating quirks and the ending isn’t quite the same.

The acting is wonderful. And the singing is not bad – indeed, sometimes quite good – although superscripts like those used often at operas would have been helpful. Many of the choruses, and even some of the solos, were difficult to understand.

The decision to have the lower-class French speak and sing in Cockney accents had something to do with the difficulties of comprehension. And it gave me the feeling that I was watching a sequel or prequel to Oliver!

The story is complex enough to be nothing but Les Mis, though, based as it is on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, which ran to 1,900 pages in the original French. Here’s the skinny, or as skinny as it gets: Les Miserables follows nine main characters over two decades in the early 19th century, all linked through their connection with Cosette (the waif seen on nearly every Les Mis poster). The broadest plot line follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a reformed convict pursued by the single-minded Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), his adopted daughter, flee to Paris and are caught up, years later, in a students’ revolution against the monarchy.

Russel Crowe as Javert. Image courtesy of Les Miserables movie website

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Image courtesy of Les Miserables movie website

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Image courtesy of Les Miserables movie website

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Image courtesy of Les Miserables movie website














If you’re not up on your French history (you’re excused – France from the 1789 Revolution through the end of the 19th century is nothing if not convoluted), figuring out who was in power and what’s going on when can be more than a little difficult. How Inspector Javert managed to maintain both his obsession with Valjean and his rank in the police department through the country’s shifting governments requires a certain suspension of disbelief, as do Madame Thenardier’s sunglasses (though they may be an allusion to the possible use, at the time, of tinted glasses by those with syphilis) and Eponine’s (Samantha Barks) impossible waistline.

The casting is solid, with a number of highlights. Seyfried and Anne Hathaway, playing Cosette’s mother Fantine, look as though they actually could be related. Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen steal the show as the avaricious Madame Thenardier and her light-fingered husband. And Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche steal the scenes Carter and Cohen don’t.

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thenardiers. Photo credit “Les Miserables” movie website.

Colm Wilkinson, Bishop of Digne in the movie, played the original Jean Valjean in the London and Broadway stage productions nearly 30 years ago.  He told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published last week that he had approached the producer about playing the bishop because “I thought it would be a nice way to hand over the candlesticks” (Valjean’s visual lietmotif) to Jackman.

The scenes of forced labor, of battles and of the degradation of Fantine are more than a little graphic, but nothing can touch on the scene in the Paris sewers between Valjean and Javert. How Marius (Eddie Redmayne) recovers from his wounds after being carried through that sludge is yet another foray into suspended disbelief.

Nevertheless, after a triumphal ending that calls to mind the final scene of Titanic, you’ll leave the theater feeling more than a little bit triumphant yourself.  See it once in the theater for the spectacle, but plan on getting a DVD or Blu-Ray with closed captioning so you can figure out the lines that you missed.

0 thoughts on ““Les Miserables” translates splendidly from stage to screen”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I concur totally with this review! Great review, and I appreciated the explanation of historical allusions. Javert’s constantly vigilant, militant presence throughout each scene, time and governmental shift, reminded me of a kind of small-minded, petty Everyman figure, such as we have seen in A Man for All Seasons.

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