Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Les Misérables - the film - opened yesterday, and David and I were in back row center (my favorite seats) for the six o'clock showing. This was not because we are big fans of Les Miz. David had neither read it nor seen it, and though I saw the stage musical twice in London (the second time because my boss, with whom I was traveling, insisted), I wasn't crazy about it. But hey, it was Christmas Day, we needed to do something while digesting dinner, and it would have been too ironic to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace by going to see Jack Reacher.

Our teenaged granddaughters wanted to know what we thought of Les Miz. Though we made a game attempt, a 2-hour-and-37-minute film is hard to review in text messages, so here are my extended observations.

The story. Quite faithful to Victor Hugo's sprawling novel (1779 pages in one French edition, and no, I haven't read it), this is a set-up, if not for the Oscars, at least for Christianity Today's annual list of most redeeming films. It won't be a spoiler for you to know that the hero, Jean Valjean, is a repentant thief who spends his life selflessly helping people. This is a story that reeks of moral uplift. And that's good: in an age that celebrates ruthless individualism, it is both shocking and inspiring to watch this reminder of the power of forgiveness and self-sacrifice.

The problem with the story. Despite his repeated willingness - if inability - to die for others, Valjean (like his creator, Hugo) supports an armed band of young insurrectionists who hope to overthrow the government. If you believe that peace is created by angry men who shoot the people with whom they disagree, you will find no inconsistency in this aspect of the story.

The historical background. Do read at least a couple of Wikipedia articles before going to see the movie. The one on the June Rebellion is a good place to start. Later you might want to read Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, if you haven't already, or watch Oliver, the musical that reportedly inspired the French librettist of Les Miz. Oliver Twist was published 24 years before Les Misérables (it takes awhile to write 1779 pages), but the two books deal with the same general time period, and the lives of the poor were just as miserable in England as in France. It helps to realize that there's not much exaggeration in Les Miz, except of course that the poor were unlikely to be as gorgeous as Anne Hathaway.

The opera. Be aware that Les Miz is not just a musical. It's grand opera: "a genre of 19th-century opera ... characterised by large-scale casts and orchestras, and (in their original productions) lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events." The characters are much more likely to sing than to speak. There are recitatives and arias, rousing choruses, and even a sextet where the conflicting characters lay out their differences in counterpoint and set the audience up for the dénouement.

So what did I think of Les Miz? I liked the lavish spectacle. I thoroughly enjoyed the rowdy song "Master of the House" featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. In fact, I enjoyed every scene featuring the evil duo. The sextet and chorus, "One Day More," is quite glorious. David, old romantic that he is, liked "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."

The other 2 hours and 20 minutes, however, often left me thinking, in the oft repeated words of archvillain Javert, "Shoot me now."

At one point I whispered to David, "There are only two things I don't like about this opera: the words and the music." Apart from a few stellar numbers, the music ranges from insipid to tedious. One or two leitmotifs are endlessly repeated. Worse, a lot of the recitatives are simply drawn-out scales. If you can't come up with actual music, I wanted to scream, just let the characters talk, for Pete's sake.

The words are even worse. When I was a teenager, a particularly bad amateur poet came often to our church and read his supposedly inspirational poetry at us. I kept awake by playing a game: after he declaimed one line, I tried to guess the word he would use to make the next line rhyme. It was amazingly easy. I recommend, dear granddaughters, that you play this game while watching Les Miz. 

The librettist dips into his large sack of easy masculine rhymes (be/me, done/run, know/go, chill/kill) and scatters them prodigally about. He is particularly taken with the near-rhyme Jean Valjean with "on" and "gone." Never does he play with words like Alan Jay Lerner in, say,  Camelot ("You'll never find a virtue / Unstatussing my quo / Or making my Beelzebubble burst ...") or Stephen Sondheim in West Side Story ("I like the isle of Manhattan, / Smoke on your pipe and put that in!") Except for the bawdy tavern song, all the songs in Les Miz are so earnest, so sentimental, so predictable.

Still, as of this writing, 63% of the top critics (surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes) liked the movie, as did 72% of critics in general and 86% of the audience. That's not shabby. You may like it too, and I won't think less of you for it. Just don't put yourself through it three times. Nobody needs to be that misérable.


Adam Shields said...

I absoluely loved it. But I have seen the musical about 5 times and read the book at least twice. So I think I was predisposed to like it. I thought that the director did a good job of making use of the strengths of the screen to do things that are not really possible on stage.

I agree taht there are some places that the singing could have been trimmed and they just spoke. I think Russel Crowe was the weakest of the main characters, especially in singing.

But on the whole I really liked it.

LaVonne Neff said...

You're definitely voting with the majority, Adam!

Elizabeth said...

I have not yet seen it, but I wanted to in order to see the 17 minutes you enjoyed. Perhaps I'll wait for the video.

LaVonne Neff said...

Here's a link to a 32-second video of Helena Bonham Carter in "Master of the House" - just an appetizer!