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I Dreamed a Dream

Les Miserables
I Dreamed a Dream

Very few people I know in the English speaking West know nothing of Les Misérables, the magnificent stage musical turned into film last year by the immensely talented Tom Hooper. Hooper knows how to present period pieces to a 21st century audience, and he has done so portraying early twentieth century England (The Kings Speech) and eighteenth century America (the HBO miniseries John Adams). In Les Mis, the very popular novel of nineteenth century France by Victor Hugo is the target.

The title of a documentary about the history of the novel, the stage play and finally the making of the picture gives the sense of how some people feel about Les Mis. That documentary by filmmaker Alan Bryon (who has also done documentaries on Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher) is entitled Les Miserables: the History of the Worlds Greatest Story. The fact that anyone can think it is “the world’s greatest story”—one does wonder what the author of that book thinks of the Bible—reflects the depth and quality of Hugo’s vision, a vision that is deeply informed by his upbringing. Raised a Catholic by his apparently very pious mother, Hugo was a classic Deist by the time he wrote Les Misérables, but the work reflects his lifelong religious ambivalence between a literary Romanticism and a spiritual and political life that included God but eschewed the church (Vincent van Gogh once wrongly attributed to Hugo the saying, “Religions pass away, God remains.”). With Les Misérables Hugo became a French literary giant. Though he had been a successful poet and playwright, his fortunes were somewhat up and down until its publication. Even this book was panned by many of the radical literary set in mid nineteenth century France, but much of that criticism seems to be because of its sympathy with the Catholic faith.

In Hooper’s version of the movie, examples abound of a piety with which most Christians can sympathize. The single faultless character in the movie is the priest who has mercy on Jean Valjean, the story’s main character, and gives to the poor fugitive a great deal of silver Valjean has stolen from him. More importantly, the priest provides Valjean a model of faith, forgiveness and grace to which he aspires throughout the movie, regularly returning to this act in his reflections, even many years later. Valjean often prays, asking for forgiveness and strength to do the right thing, and crucifixes figure prominently in the visual symbols of the movie. Of course at the end, Valjean is portrayed as living after death and joining the similarly righteous Fantine in heaven.

The story has been filmed several times and is a classic example of a long, involved novel with a huge number of characters, plots and sub-plots and literary twists and turns that defy filming. Most of the film versions were poorly received, though the musical ran to record-breaking crowds in London, New York and in theaters across America. Its popularity moved Hooper to try to make a film version of the musical, not a typical drama like the earlier versions. Hooper’s version is at best a moderate success.

When I saw this movie, I arrived so late that I had to sit on the second row in a packed house. As I was by the stage play, I was stunned by the great music, and many of the other technical aspects of the film were superb. Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, Amanda Seyfried, as his daughter Cosette, and Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine turn in particularly notable performances, and the costuming, lighting, set design, etc.—many of the elements of a film that make it superb rather than mildly worthwhile—contribute to this easily being the best filmed Les Misérables yet. One simply cannot beat the music of this magnificent play; many of its songs have worked their way into our public consciousness and most of the renditions, particularly by Jackman and Hathaway, are as powerful as the stage performances.

Two things hurt this film, though neither should affect its power on the small screen of the DVD watcher. Hooper mostly makes good directorial choices, but when he misses, he misses badly. Late in the film, Jean Valjean’s great nemesis, Javert, played by Russell Crowe, sings a solo that is so bad in every way it is almost laughable. Javert is on some rooftop overlooking Paris, walking along the edge of the roof, but there is no explanation of how he got there, why he is there or what purpose this location serves to the story. More than that, Crowe walks along the edge of the roof, and there are interminable shots of his feet, which are downright silly, and Crowe’s voice is famously not up to the depth and power of his tortured soliloquy, as he sings the song mostly in a whiny falsetto. Dreadful. Other directorial choices, too, mar the film such as a ridiculous sword fight between Javert and Jean Valjean near Fantine’s deathbed, which accomplished nothing but to raise questions: Where did Javert come from? Why a sword fight?

Worse than these slips, the movie seeks to make use of a technical advantage it has over the stage, the close-up, but it uses them so often that the close-ups become distracting, and the close-ups are so extreme that it distracts the viewer. Hathaway’s powerful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, for example, is almost ruined by this device. Only her thoroughly possessed performance saves the scene from looking mawkish and ugly. Watching the movie on the small screen should help negate this flaw.

Les Mis was one of the great movies of a great year, and will raise questions that will make a discussion based on it lively and impossible to complete. How do we understand forgiveness? How do we decide to act in situations that arise, which seem to have no clear-cut moral choice? What is the nature of love? Deep and important questions like these are explored richly and well in Les Misérables.

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