With intense performances, marvelous (not perfect) singing, excellent staging, and more, Les Misérables delivers strongly on Victor Hugo’s classic novel — and does itself proud in comparison to the stage production from which the film’s music is taken. This is all the more an achievement because a “film opera” (a musical with almost no spoken dialog, also called a “sung-through musical”) is very challenging to do well. Set in the aftermath of the French Revolution, encompassing the June Rebellion of 1832, and overlaying and intertwining themes of criminal justice, social justice, mercy, and forgiveness, Les Mis can kindle and feed within us the fire of a revolution of love.
It’s the early 1800s, and poverty is rampant in the midst of France’s long struggle from monarchy to republic. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child; he is convicted and serves eventually 19 years hard labor, including time under the authority of Javert, a prison guard. After his release, and receiving the gracious kindness of Bishop Myriel, Valjean builds a new life. Fantine, a poor unwed mother, struggles to support her daughter, Cosette, whom she has placed in the care of corrupt innkeepers, the Thénardiers. Marius, the son of a rich family, joins with fellow students in plotting the June Rebellion and its fight for the poor. Javert develops a particular disdain for Valjean, and is determined to bring him back to justice at the slightest provocation. Les Mis intertwines the lives of all these characters, and multiple others, in a rich tapestry of justice, mercy, and love. Running time: 157 min.
As a classic, enduring, and profound artifact of world literature, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is worth exploring again and again. Director Tom Hooper’s 2012 production, as any major production should, embodies well the novel’s overarching questions: What difference, if any, should there be between the strict demands of the law and the sentence enacted upon a violator of the law? What, if any, mitigating circumstances shall we consider in sentencing? Is mercy a thing of beauty, as it passes over an offense and lets a violator go free? Does such mercy make any reasonable sense? Does it need to make sense? Is mercy a violation of, an abomination of, justice and the law? Who deserves mercy, and who decides?
The social context of Les Mis deepens these questions by making the film’s exploration more specific and intense. How should questions of criminal law, justice, and mercy apply to social justice and conditions of poverty? How is mercy a concrete embodiment of love? Do the wealthy hide behind a purist view of justice, allowing impoverished humanity to decay and rot? When is mercy foolish? When and how do we cause our own impoverished conditions through our own irresponsibility? How shall mercy account for our responsibility? The questions richly explored in Les Mis are many and are critical to our time in history — and to any time in history.
On the whole, the filmcraft in Les Mis is first rate. Although purists might pick at nits in the singing performances, most viewers, being drawn into the film, will not. In particular, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman deserve high praise. Orchestration is excellent (my nit: perhaps it is overwrought on one song). The film's pacing and editing bring smooth flow to a complex story. Frequent close-ups offer a chance to connect with the characters and their expressions as though we were there with them in 19th-century France. Its cinematography richly embodies the mostly dark times that the film inhabits. Possibly, I might complain that the innkeepers are played too clownishly, but I must confess that I don't know whether or not this way of playing them might have justification in Victor Hugo's original writing of the characters.
This production of Les Misérables is most definitely worth the time — I could want for it to contain even more of the book. That said, to pull the next level of material from the book might well demand the length of an operatic mini-series instead. One final note: It is important to understand that the singing performances are not intended to have polished, lip-synced perfection, but instead are intended to carry stronger nuance of the actors' live performances (that is, live on the production set, not pre-recorded in a studio).
There is no nudity, but sexual themes are strong, particularly prostitution. There are two short, non-graphic sexual scenes. Themes of violence are strong, including violence against children, beatings, and gunshots (with some blood and intense sound effects). Some minor language.
- Director: Tom Hooper
- Screenplay: William Nicholson, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
- Leads: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Isabelle Allen
- Cinematography: Danny Cohen
- Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
- Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton, drawing heavily from the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (71%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (63 of 100)
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (3 of 4)
- Review on Reelviews.net (3.5 of 4)
- Review by Paste Magazine (7.9)
- Review by Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)
- Review at In Review Online
- Wikipedia's summary of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables
- Wikipedia "index" listing of French governments (look at the sidebar). Technically, the term "French Revolution" applies to only a single decade in France's history (1789-1799), but it took much longer for France to achieve the sustained republican government envisioned by the Revolution (until the third republic in 1870). A good way to navigate this long transition is through the succession of French governments captured in the links in the sidebar on this page.
- Buy Les Misérables DVD on Amazon
- Buy complete Les Misérables stage soundtrack on Amazon
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- Buy Les Misérables (2012) film soundtrack highlights only Amazon
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- Buy Les Misérables book on Amazon
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