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Movie Review: Les Miserables

    [rating=4] I have been fighting off a pretty intense allergy attack this week that had me home sick from work on Wednesday and working from home on Thursday.  I was so sick, in fact, that I watched a movie without anything in my hands, which is an event that should be marked on the calendar for its rarity.  I had heard good things about the latest rendition of Les Miserables and I really like a lot of the stars, so I rented it, even though I have a love-hate affair with the musical.  The characterization drives me absolutely nuts, because it is so shallow.  Sure, but it’s a musical, you say.

Watch Camelot, I say, to see how it can be done.

Let’s start with Marius.  I think we are supposed to like him, but he bothers me.  Aside from hiding his rich family order to better fit in with les pauvres, his treatment of Eponine is so blind as to be offensive.  He’s so unaware of her feelings as to be cruel, asking her to further his liaison with Cosette, who he falls in love with after just one glance.  And Cosette, of course, because cooincidences rule the day (apparently there about five people in all of Victor Hugo’s France), happens to be the young girl that Eponine’s parents abused all of those years; our darling bland Cosette.  Marius is even worse in the novel.

And poor Cosette.  We’re supposed to pity her because her foster family made her go out in the dark and get water from a well.  In the book there’s a great deal more, but in the musical, she sings a sad song about a castle on a cloud (uhm, yeah), has to get a pail of water in the dark forest, is saved by our hero Jean Valjean, then lives a nice life with her new rich Papa, while Eponine continues to be cursed by her godawful parents.  Beyond that, Cosette is always an angelic blonde.  That is the end of her characterization. I have a hard time understanding why she’s important at all, because she’s one of the most boring characters to have hit the stage in a really long time.  Yet much of the plot revolves around her happiness, which I don’t care at all about.  She won when Jean Valjean showed up in her life.

Eponine I care about.  Eponine I want to grab by the shoulders and say, “Girlfriend, grow a spine and tell him.  If he says no, he didn’t deserve you.”

It goes on from there.  Potentially Jean Valjean could be really interesting.  He’s our good guy archetype – the giant man with extraordinary strength and a convict past.  But he’s such a good guy that we find out that he only stole out of desperation to save the life of a child.  That’s what he does. He saves the lives of children.  Even when his inaction and distraction leads to Fantine turning to prostitution and dying of consumption and exposure, we sympathize with him because he regrets it and goes off and saves Cosette.

Say what?

The play would be better if we discovered that Jean was a big liar and never had a sister.  Or even if he had a bit on the side.  Something.  Anything!  And then, without any concern at all, he just accepts this stranger that Cosette has fallen in love with and sets her up to marry him, without a single question.  Again…say what?

One of the best characters is Javert, who is supposed to be the bad guy, or at least as much of a bad guy as a French writer can manage. He is a really sympathetic bad guy, clearly blinded by his own fanaticism, blinded so clearly so that you rather pity him.  Javert has blind faith in the law and it is his entire purpose.  There are no shades of grey in Javert’s world until Jean Valjean goes off and does his angelic good guy thing and saves Javert’s life, which forces Javert to recognize that morality can be ambigious.  Javert’s faith fails him and it actually destroys him.  Now that’s a character I can get into, even if the play gives me nothing other than this one fact about him.  Likewise, the other fanatic, Enjolras who is more brave than wise, but dies keeping his beliefs to the end.

Tell me that you don’t want to get up on that bridge with him and talk Javert down and give him a hug?

My problems with the characterization aside, the music is powerful, with a few pearls of lyrics that are well worth sitting through it.  There are a number of songs in the musical where you have opposing characters singing rounds that are pretty amazing.  And this staging of Les Miserables was certainly the best one that I’ve ever seen.  I thought Russell Crowe was a brilliant Javert and from time to time, I even forgot that Hugh Jackman was Australian.  The cast was excellent and the music was well performed, with no weak points at all.  The filming was gorgeous, with an opening scene that I won’t forget for a long time.

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