My Favorite Film of 2012: Les Miserables

lesmis1I’ve seen most of the major films of the year by now, and Les Miserables is arguably the best, and definitely my personal favorite. I will be honest: This is my favorite musical ever, and it sets the bar for all other musicals in my opinion. So, I was biased towards liking this film already when I saw it. But I will be honest that I also had some concerns: How do you produce a film that will have the power of the original music when everyone already knows the music and the story, and we’ve seen it all in musical and film versions before? It seemed like a tall order. But this film surpasses every one of my expectations, and the power of the film is that it does help us to enter this story and discover the music as if it were our first time to experience it.

That exactly was the objective of director Tom Hooper (King’s Speech), who I heard share his vision for the film at a Directors Guild/BAFTA screening here in New York City last week. Working with the great Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh, Hooper created a film that is even better than the musical, and that’s very unusual when a popular musical is produced as a film. But in Hooper’s hands and with his eye, he uses the camera to make this sweeping musical and complex story more intimate, simple and profound. The themes of grace and love are more clear, the experiences of the characters are more moving because we see them up close, and the story is easier to grasp than in the winding musical. The performances of the actors, particularly those of Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, are astonishing and moving. Even non-actors can appreciate their performances even more when they consider that Hooper filmed the music performances live while the actors were acting — and most of the time in front of a very tight camera shot. Acting in tight shots is difficult in and of itself, but to do so in such emotional scenes while also concerning one self with the vocal quality and performance — truly extraordinary.

My only problem with the film is the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert. I’m not a fan of Crowe generally, but it is his vocal quality in the film that is so difficult to hear. In a film so dedicated to excellence, it’s hard to understand the decision of Hooper to cast Crowe in such an important role when he was vocally unable to rise to the demands of the role. I was never so glad to see Javert commit suicide!

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With a couple of exceptions, the film follows the musical perfectly and has a duration of nearly 3 hours that is not noticeable to the audience. The film is explicitly a religious one — those who seek to understand the film without understanding the concepts of grace and law miss its meaning — and Hooper’s camera captures Christian imagery throughout the film from cande lit cathedrals to images of crosses that recur throughout the film. It is no accident that the film is being released on Christmas Day, for it tells the story of transforming grace that hounds the life of a prisoner until he discovers that his true identity is a person loved by God and as the recipient of the grace of others. Javier, the symbol of law and order in the film, doggedly pursues the one who seeks to live by the order of grace, but, to quote St. Paul, law leads to death, and grace to life. With the arrival of the child Cossette and the enjoyment of a new life, Jean Valjean sets out to give the same grace to others that has so redeemed his own life from what it had been. As the film finds him at death’s door at its end, the characters, some with love requited and others with love never returned, discover “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

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The addition of the song “Suddenly” is a thematic moment in the film, and in its lyrics, combined with the powerful performance by Jackman, we all experience the way in which every relationship in our lives holds the possibilities to redeem who we have been, to experience and to give grace, and finally to love.

Yesterday I was alone

Today you walk beside me

Something still unclear

Something not yet here

Has begun.

Suddenly the world

Seems a different place

Somehow full of grace

And light.

How was I to know

That so much love

Was held inside me?

Something fresh and young

Something still unsung

Fills the night.

Said another way, by my friend Martin Kipp in his email The Daily Love:

“[Grace] is not something we have to earn. This is something that is given to us freely from a place of Love. And the cool thing about Grace is that Grace can cancel Karma. Karma is the law of cause and effect – every action creates and equal and opposite reaction. But that isn’t how Grace works. There is no action that requires Grace to come forth and there is no negative effect that Grace can’t stop.”

And that’s the meaning and message of “Les Miserables.” The world truly is full of grace and light, but it is up to us to receive and to give it to others. I’ve never seen a musical or film that so rises to the definition of “sacrament” as this one, for truly the presence and love of God is everywhere present and experienced in the beautiful music, and now the stunning motion picture, of Les Miserables.

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