I held off a week, but that’s as long as I could wait to see the film adaptation of the stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s film about the French class structure and revolution. I’ve seen the musical on stage twice, and I’ve been listening to the London cast album since at least 1986 (the CD has more material than the LP double-album, FYI).
Scroll all the way down for a summary of the film with some spoilers, but I’ve tried not to give everything away.
I found some of the camera movement to be shaky and disorienting, and I felt like director Tom Hooper could have done more variety in his shots. We had a lot of close-ups, and they tended to be “computer wallpaper”-style with the subject always off-center and the background out of focus. It drew attention to itself, with me anyway. He could have done more with the shots to evoke emotional response; for example, through most of “Empty Chairs and Empty Table” we’re zoomed in on Marius’ face, but more camera movement (nice smooth pan and dolly shots) and wider shots showing the empty chairs would have accentuated the mood. Placing the camera above the actor would have made him seem smaller and more alone. That type of thought in setting up shots is missing from a lot of recent movies made by younger directors.
I am looking forward to this film earning a lot of Oscars and other awards for performances, design, and other technical categories.
I kind of wish the film had come out in 2011, when the Occupy movement was at its height. As I pointed out in a post that year, the French revolution had some similarities with our own situation then. I should point out that, even though I love the show, I never realized the French revolution had two parts, and that Les Mis is set in 1800s, not the 1770s.
The story centers on Jean Valjean. When the movie opens, he is doing hard labor in prison. He was originally arrested for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family, and the sentenced was extended because of escape attempts. After 19 years, he receives parole, but one condition is that everywhere he goes, he has to show his papers so everyone knows he’s a convict. Because of that, he can’t get work or find anyplace to stay. Finally, one night he is trying to sleep in a stable behind a church when the bishop finds him. The bishop invites him in, says a blessing for him, gives him a meal and a bed to sleep in. Valjean repays that kindness by stealing a sackful of silver dishes and cups. He doesn’t get far before he’s picked up by police, but when they bring him and the stolen silver back to the church, the bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver and insists he take two more silver candlesticks. The bishop tells Valjean to use the money to become an honest man.
That’s the moment that Valjean changes his life. He tears up his parole papers, changes his name, and transforms himself into a responsible businessman. A few years later, though, one of the prison guards, now Inspector Javert, turns up in his town. He is so distracted by that, he allows a young woman, Fantine, to be fired from his factory for having an illegitimate child. Fantine ends up turning to prostitution and falls ill. That’s when Valjean finds her and promises to help her and to rescue her child from a mercenary innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers. At the same time, Javert tells him an innocent man has been arrested under Valjean’s name.
Valjean appears in court to identify himself and save the other man’s life. Then he runs off to fetch Cosette. The two of them go to Paris. Several years later, Cosette sees and falls in love with Marius, a young revolutionary, even though he’s from a wealthy family.
This is where it gets more complicated.
Marius asks a female friend, Éponine, to help him find Cosette. Éponine agrees to help, even though she secretly loves Marius, but when she arrives at their home, she finds her father, the former innkeeper Thénardier, and his gang about to rob the place. She screams, which brings the police, including Javert, so Valjean and Cosette are forced to flee. Cosette leaves a note for Marius, which Éponine takes, but does not give him.
The revolution begins, and Éponine is wounded. She gives Marius the note from Cosette and he sends Cosette a message saying his farewells in case he is killed in battle. Valjean intercepts the note and goes to see Marius. He finds the revolutionaries holding Javert prisoner, and he gets him released. Javert says he doesn’t care if Valjean saved his life, he’s still going to arrest him as soon as he can. Then Javert leaves. Valjean sticks around and when Marius is wounded, he carries him to safety. During their escape through the sewers [Ewww, he just got feces in Marius’ open wound!], Javert tries to arrest Valjean and threatens to shoot him. Valjean walks away, and Javert finds he is unable to fire the gun after all. Valjean’s actions on behalf of others have shaken his whole belief system.
Cosette and Marius plan to get married, but Valjean is afraid of being discovered again by the police, and he leaves. They find him again just in time to say goodbye before his death.