Les Misérables

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on January 02, 2013

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Dear Dad
Reluctant Audience Member (and Real-Life Javert)

Dear Dad,

"It was actually pretty good... for a chick flick" - Doug Redmond

It may not be a pull-quote for the posters, but I consider your tenuous approval of Les Miserables a victory no less. As an officer of the law for 35 years, it's no surprise you prefer movies where the action is unchained and the emotions are unsung. Most guys do. But over the holidays, in the spirit of the season, you dutifully ignored the more enticing options in the cineplex to keep the family together. In the words of the story's antagonist Javert, you probably thought "I will join these little schoolboys, they will wet themselves…" with tears. And we did. And it was glorious. And to the disgust of your iron-clad masculinity, even you must have been moved.

How could you not be? The international sensation Les Miserables is a pop opera that packs more emotion per measure than most productions could ever dream. Director Tom Hooper has created a genuine thrill-a-minute motion picture that somehow balances the bombastic tendencies of Broadway musicals with the intimate demands of filmmaking. He boldly does so by marrying one of the most powerful tools of the stage--live singing--to the silver screen's own weapon of choice: the close up.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you felt a little too close to the action. The film opens grandly, with a powerful rendition of Look Down that embraces the scale of the 19th Century France to great effect. You yourself may have felt like the officer Javert (Russel Crowe), observing the toils of forced labour below you. We then quickly meet our antagonist, prisoner 24601 Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is incredibly gaunt from his 19 years in shackles. He is released, and continually wronged, until an act of kindness inspires his rebirth. And at the moment he screams to the heavens "Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin," I knew this movie was in the right hands. Even you must have even felt the stirrings of emotion - that most dangerous of enemies to the law.

If not, surely Anne Hathaway inspired you by her performance as Fantine, the impoverished mother who will do anything—anything—to save her daughter. Her signature number, I Dreamed a Dream, is devastatingly powerful and performed in a single take close-up. Even with minimal context, like when Susan Boyle sang it on Britain's Got Talent, that incredible tale of fallen hope can rise to dizzying heights. But here, we can almost see the fading flicker from Hathaway's eyes as she unearths the soul of the song. Is it the most technically accomplished rendition? Of course not. That's what the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast concert is for. This performance belongs uniquely to this film. In fact, prioritizing character over concert is the revolutionary strength to this entire adaptation.

On My Own by Éponine (Samantha Barks) is the other showstopper, and once again you may have felt like a prisoner to a close-up. But her face is easy on the eyes and the song is easy on the ears, so the only thing that will hurt is your heart. And that's okay! Just like Jesus Christ Superstar is no preachy Sunday sermon, Les Mis (as we musical geeks call it) is far more than a tale of woe and sorrow. But it is designed to make you feel empathy, and probably does so in a way even the Broadway production couldn't always accomplish so clearly with such a rotating characters.

Still, I'm sure part of you resisted, since "singing is for girls" (or something like that). But come on, when the key cast members meld their individual theme songs to their pre-battle melody of One Day More, it's a rousing mid-show climax that's basically the musical equivalent of watching The Avengers of Misery. But unlike a comic book, these underdog heroes are devastatingly mortal. Their failed plight is based on the ambers of the French Revolution that took more than a century to ever find its storybook ending. And I think it's that cold hard truth which finally won you over.

We couldn't expect you to share the enthusiasm of your wife and daughter (who flew to Chicago three weeks ago to see the musical again), or accept my pitch that it's a story about blood and revolution. To that last point, you just looked at me unimpressed and reasserted your conviction: "It's a chick flick." Maybe you're just afraid of what happened to Javert when he broke his strict moral code to show compassion. But don't worry dad, it's just a movie.

And you know what they say - misery loves company. So I'm glad we saw this together. Even if it's you know, one of "those" movies.

Love, your son,


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