2012-12-25

Les Miserables – A Powerful Story Of God’s Mercy And Grace

by Yo Snyder

So, I’ve never seen any of the stage productions of Les Miserables.
I’ve read the book, which I loved, and I saw the movie version starring
Liam Neeson, which I also enjoyed (heresy, I know, but I did), but I’ve
never actually watched a full production of the stage musical of this
story. Now the reason I mention all of this is because depending on how
big of a fan you are of the musical version, it will likely have an
influence on your overall feeling of this film version of the musical. I
really have nothing to compare it to, from the musical/stage viewpoint.
I know the songs, I’ve seen clips of performances, but never sat
through a whole productions. Therefore, I approached this more on its
own terms as a movie, even more so than as a musical. So just keep that
in mind as I break down the unique but enjoyable experience that is Les Miserables.

First
off, let’s look at the film just as a movie. As a movie experience,
it’s a slightly flawed one. First, there are some transitions and edits
that are rather abrupt. We’re in one setting with certain characters,
and then suddenly we’re somewhere else and with some new characters.
There also some scenes that suddenly have a character show up for no
apparent reason that suddenly transitions to a different scene and
setting. Now, some of this is simply done in service to the songs. The
songs tell the story and therefore I suppose some of these abrupt
transitions are unavoidable, but they’re still jarring. Also, there are
some plot points and character arcs that are basically developed over
the course of a song, which is far too brief. Some of these are rather
interesting and nuanced elements, but they don’t get the depth they
probably would and should in a straight-forward narrative. Again, this
is done in service to the fact that this is a musical, but it leaves
some of the emotional resonance to the wayside because of it. Despite
these flaws and shortcomings, the central story is as intact and
powerful as ever, and is still a riveting one to experience and watch. 

Now, as a musical, Les Miserables
fares a bit better. The performances (which we’ll get into in a moment)
are all-around very well done with some stellar stand-outs. The music
is stirring and powerful, and there are moments where you just feel like
you should stand and applaud just like you would if it were a live,
stage-production. The decision to have the actors sing live while on set
is an interesting experiment that really delivers. It really makes the
performances much more of a hybrid than you might otherwise see. The
actors aren’t really performing the songs as much as they are acting out
a scene in which they just happen to be singing. It’s kind of hard to
describe, but it works and works well and give the whole experience a
very gritty, real-word, heart-wrenching vibe. I don’t know how it
compares to stage versions, but I would imagine it would compare rather
favorably.

Both as a film and as a musical, the success of this
endeavor rested squarely on the talents of the performers, and
fortunately the entire cast was more than equal to the task. First of
all, as far as I’m concerned, you can just give the Oscar to Anne
Hathaway. She gives such a raw, emotional, heart-breaking performance
that it just takes your breath away, and when she sings her powerful,
wrenching version of “I Dreamed A Dream”, it shows just what an
excellent choice it was to mix singing performances with acting
performances. I’ve heard it said this is the definitive version of that
song. I don’t really have much to compare it with, but I can’t imagine
hearing it any other way. Now much has been made of Russel Crowe’s
performance and how it seems he’s out of his element here, however
that’s not the impression I got. In fact, I think he acquits himself
quite well. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his best
performances since Gladiator. It’s obvious that it’s a stretch
for him, but he proves equal to the task. His vocal abilities may not
quite match some of the other cast, but how he performs suits his
character of Javert, and he was surprisingly one of my favorite parts of
the film. Hugh Jackman, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne are all
superb, and even Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are good. If
there is a weak link, I’d say it’s Amanda Seyfried. She’s not terrible
by any means, and handles her role just fine, but her performance just
doesn’t quite click as well as the rest of the cast. It was a daring
move to basically do a live stage musical as a movie, but the experiment
works quite well overall due to the strength of all the actors’
performances. 

I should mention there is one part that I can’t
help but believe might have been changed had the events at Sandy Hook
Elementary not taken place quite so close to the release of the film.
The reaction to seeing the little street urchin Gavroche get gunned down
in the street was quite different, I believe, than it might have been a
few weeks ago. The collective breath of the audience went out of them
at the first shot, and when the second shot kills the child, the theater
was silent. Not “we’re-at-the-movies” silent, but a deep, profound
silence that only comes when reflecting on a tragedy like the one in
Connecticut. I’ve heard that in the stage versions, this child often
dies out of the scene, and were it an option, I can’t help but think
that perhaps this scene might have been changed to do something similar.
Still, it’s a part of a story that was written centuries ago, so I
don’t believe it will stir controversy the way it might otherwise have.

All of that aside, what I liked most about this version of Les Miserables
is that it kept the story and its themes intact and at the forefront.
This is ultimately a story about God and his mercy, which I find
fascinating seeing as that it’s so popular in a culture that otherwise
often seems to want to have little to do with Him. The policeman Javert
gets to the heart of the matter when he states (or this case sings)
those who fall must pay the price. It is the foundation of who he is,
the cornerstone of what he believes. However, it is completely
undermined when he encounters the same force that changed the life of
Jean Valjean. Through the kindly grace and mercy of a priest, Jean
Valjean discovered that the fallen can never pay the price, they can
never pay enough. However, they don’t have to because the price has
already been paid. Not only has the price been paid, but it was paid for
on our behalf, giving us the chance at true freedom and a second chance
at life in return. This is true grace and mercy, brought to us through
Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. This truth changes both the
lives of Javert and Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean accepts this truth and
discovers life and freedom through the grace, mercy and love of God.
Javert, when confronted with this same mercy and grace, cannot accept
it, cannot reconcile it with his beliefs, and instead of life and
freedom he chooses to reject it and that ultimately destroys him.
Everyone still faces that same choice when it comes to Jesus, when it
comes to what Christmas is really all about. We can either accept it and
discover what Jean Valjean discovered, or reject it and let the despair
and hopelessness that overwhelmed Javert overwhelm us. For some it’s
just too much to believe that God’s love, mercy and grace was meant for
us, for all of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. But it was,
it is.

Les Miserables is a fascinating experiment in its
blending of live musical and movie-making. It’s a flawed experiment, to
be sure, but ultimately it’s one that works. The musical performances
have a raw, genuineness to them that doing things in the traditional way
wouldn’t have captured or even allowed. Plus, this is a story that
remains a powerful illustration of grace and law, of the power of God’s
mercy, of finding hope in despair and suffering. Because of the
popularity of the musical version of this story, this experimental take
on the musical material will be scrutinized and analyzed, and perhaps
unfairly so. Taken on its own merits, it’s a triumph. It has its rough
patches, but in the end it works; it’s a beautiful musical and a gritty,
powerful film. It’s a unique experience, but it’s one that’s not to be
missed.

Score: 6 of 7 – Honestly, as movie I probably would have scored it as a 5, but I have to give credit to the fact that the bold move of making a movie of a live musical was risky, but ultimately works. Also, this is a gritty, grim story. There are elements that are far from kid-friendly, so take the PG-13 rating seriously.
,

So, I’ve never seen any of the stage productions of Les Miserables.
I’ve read the book, which I loved, and I saw the movie version starring
Liam Neeson, which I also enjoyed (heresy, I know, but I did), but I’ve
never actually watched a full production of the stage musical of this
story. Now the reason I mention all of this is because depending on how
big of a fan you are of the musical version, it will likely have an
influence on your overall feeling of this film version of the musical. I
really have nothing to compare it to, from the musical/stage viewpoint.
I know the songs, I’ve seen clips of performances, but never sat
through a whole productions. Therefore, I approached this more on its
own terms as a movie, even more so than as a musical. So just keep that
in mind as I break down the unique but enjoyable experience that is Les Miserables.

First
off, let’s look at the film just as a movie. As a movie experience,
it’s a slightly flawed one. First, there are some transitions and edits
that are rather abrupt. We’re in one setting with certain characters,
and then suddenly we’re somewhere else and with some new characters.
There also some scenes that suddenly have a character show up for no
apparent reason that suddenly transitions to a different scene and
setting. Now, some of this is simply done in service to the songs. The
songs tell the story and therefore I suppose some of these abrupt
transitions are unavoidable, but they’re still jarring. Also, there are
some plot points and character arcs that are basically developed over
the course of a song, which is far too brief. Some of these are rather
interesting and nuanced elements, but they don’t get the depth they
probably would and should in a straight-forward narrative. Again, this
is done in service to the fact that this is a musical, but it leaves
some of the emotional resonance to the wayside because of it. Despite
these flaws and shortcomings, the central story is as intact and
powerful as ever, and is still a riveting one to experience and watch. 

Now, as a musical, Les Miserables
fares a bit better. The performances (which we’ll get into in a moment)
are all-around very well done with some stellar stand-outs. The music
is stirring and powerful, and there are moments where you just feel like
you should stand and applaud just like you would if it were a live,
stage-production. The decision to have the actors sing live while on set
is an interesting experiment that really delivers. It really makes the
performances much more of a hybrid than you might otherwise see. The
actors aren’t really performing the songs as much as they are acting out
a scene in which they just happen to be singing. It’s kind of hard to
describe, but it works and works well and give the whole experience a
very gritty, real-word, heart-wrenching vibe. I don’t know how it
compares to stage versions, but I would imagine it would compare rather
favorably.

Both as a film and as a musical, the success of this
endeavor rested squarely on the talents of the performers, and
fortunately the entire cast was more than equal to the task. First of
all, as far as I’m concerned, you can just give the Oscar to Anne
Hathaway. She gives such a raw, emotional, heart-breaking performance
that it just takes your breath away, and when she sings her powerful,
wrenching version of “I Dreamed A Dream”, it shows just what an
excellent choice it was to mix singing performances with acting
performances. I’ve heard it said this is the definitive version of that
song. I don’t really have much to compare it with, but I can’t imagine
hearing it any other way. Now much has been made of Russel Crowe’s
performance and how it seems he’s out of his element here, however
that’s not the impression I got. In fact, I think he acquits himself
quite well. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his best
performances since Gladiator. It’s obvious that it’s a stretch
for him, but he proves equal to the task. His vocal abilities may not
quite match some of the other cast, but how he performs suits his
character of Javert, and he was surprisingly one of my favorite parts of
the film. Hugh Jackman, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne are all
superb, and even Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are good. If
there is a weak link, I’d say it’s Amanda Seyfried. She’s not terrible
by any means, and handles her role just fine, but her performance just
doesn’t quite click as well as the rest of the cast. It was a daring
move to basically do a live stage musical as a movie, but the experiment
works quite well overall due to the strength of all the actors’
performances. 

I should mention there is one part that I can’t
help but believe might have been changed had the events at Sandy Hook
Elementary not taken place quite so close to the release of the film.
The reaction to seeing the little street urchin Gavroche get gunned down
in the street was quite different, I believe, than it might have been a
few weeks ago. The collective breath of the audience went out of them
at the first shot, and when the second shot kills the child, the theater
was silent. Not “we’re-at-the-movies” silent, but a deep, profound
silence that only comes when reflecting on a tragedy like the one in
Connecticut. I’ve heard that in the stage versions, this child often
dies out of the scene, and were it an option, I can’t help but think
that perhaps this scene might have been changed to do something similar.
Still, it’s a part of a story that was written centuries ago, so I
don’t believe it will stir controversy the way it might otherwise have.

All of that aside, what I liked most about this version of Les Miserables
is that it kept the story and its themes intact and at the forefront.
This is ultimately a story about God and his mercy, which I find
fascinating seeing as that it’s so popular in a culture that otherwise
often seems to want to have little to do with Him. The policeman Javert
gets to the heart of the matter when he states (or this case sings)
those who fall must pay the price. It is the foundation of who he is,
the cornerstone of what he believes. However, it is completely
undermined when he encounters the same force that changed the life of
Jean Valjean. Through the kindly grace and mercy of a priest, Jean
Valjean discovered that the fallen can never pay the price, they can
never pay enough. However, they don’t have to because the price has
already been paid. Not only has the price been paid, but it was paid for
on our behalf, giving us the chance at true freedom and a second chance
at life in return. This is true grace and mercy, brought to us through
Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. This truth changes both the
lives of Javert and Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean accepts this truth and
discovers life and freedom through the grace, mercy and love of God.
Javert, when confronted with this same mercy and grace, cannot accept
it, cannot reconcile it with his beliefs, and instead of life and
freedom he chooses to reject it and that ultimately destroys him.
Everyone still faces that same choice when it comes to Jesus, when it
comes to what Christmas is really all about. We can either accept it and
discover what Jean Valjean discovered, or reject it and let the despair
and hopelessness that overwhelmed Javert overwhelm us. For some it’s
just too much to believe that God’s love, mercy and grace was meant for
us, for all of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. But it was,
it is.

Les Miserables is a fascinating experiment in its
blending of live musical and movie-making. It’s a flawed experiment, to
be sure, but ultimately it’s one that works. The musical performances
have a raw, genuineness to them that doing things in the traditional way
wouldn’t have captured or even allowed. Plus, this is a story that
remains a powerful illustration of grace and law, of the power of God’s
mercy, of finding hope in despair and suffering. Because of the
popularity of the musical version of this story, this experimental take
on the musical material will be scrutinized and analyzed, and perhaps
unfairly so. Taken on its own merits, it’s a triumph. It has its rough
patches, but in the end it works; it’s a beautiful musical and a gritty,
powerful film. It’s a unique experience, but it’s one that’s not to be
missed.

Score: 6 of 7 – Honestly, as movie I probably would have scored it as a 5, but I have to give credit to the fact that the bold move of making a movie of a live musical was risky, but ultimately works. Also, this is a gritty, grim story. There are elements that are far from kid-friendly, so take the PG-13 rating seriously.