"To love another person is to see the face of God."
If you had to sum up the theme of "Les Misérables" in one sentence, that line — which appears at the end of the film — would probably come the closest to capturing the essence of the story. The well-loved musical and now feature film is a tale about compassion and forgiveness, and how even those who have fallen from the light (or been pushed from it) are not beyond redemption.
The story begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who was forced to spend 19 years in prison for the seemingly minor crime of stealing bread. Full of anger and bitterness at his unfortunate turn of fate, Valjean commits another crime soon after his release. Yet when he is caught by the authorities, he is freed by a selfless act of kindness from a bishop. Touched by the bishop's compassion, Valjean decides to make a new life for himself, burying the name and legacy of "Jean Valjean" in the past.
However, he is hunted by the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who wants to bring Jean Valjean to justice for breaking parole — even though Valjean is now a well-respected man who has dedicated his life to helping others. As he endeavors to avoid Javert's capture, Jean Valjean crosses paths with a variety of characters, including a doomed prostitute named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who entrusts her daughter Cosette to Valjean's care. The characters all are eventually caught up in one of the French revolutions, and the film culminates in a final confrontation between Valjean and Javert, in which Javert must choose between justice and mercy.
"Les Misérables" has proven to be a bit divisive in Hollywood. Although it's been nominated for a "best picture" Academy Award, some critics have been tough on the film. How you feel about the movie probably will depend on your thoughts about the original stage play, and how you feel about musicals in general.
I think the stage play and the film both have their strengths. There's something magical about watching live theater; there's a certain energy that comes from being in the same room as the performers and watching the story unfold on the stage in front of you. Yet film as an artistic medium also has its advantages; the director is able to give us close-ups of the actors' expressions and use more elaborate sets.
Like the original play, almost all the lines in the film are sung, similar to an opera. It does take a few minutes to get used to this. It's tough to pull off on film a script consisting almost entirely of singing, but I think it works, thanks to the line-up of talented performers.
The strongest actors here are Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who pour their heart and soul into their performances. I was excited to see both were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. Jackman sings with confidence and emotion, and you can sympathize with his character's struggles. Hathaway's rendition of one of the musical's most famous songs, "I Dreamed a Dream," is truly heartbreaking, and was one of the highlights of the film for me. Some of the stand-out newcomers were Eddie Redmayne as the earnest and idealistic revolutionary Marius and Samantha Barks as the tragic Éponine.
Russell Crowe has received some criticism for his performance in the film, though I think the critics have been a bit too tough on him. While out of all the lead actors, he seems the least comfortable with the singing aspect of the film, I believe he was a good choice to capture the persona of Javert. It was perhaps unfair of the film makers to ask him to sing all the lines since he doesn't have as much music theater experience as Jackman.
My favorite part of the film was the music; it's gorgeous and sweeping, and the major musical set pieces from the original play are well-represented here: the revolutionaries' rousing call-to-arms "Do You Hear the People Sing?"; Hathaway's gut-wrenching "I Dreamed a Dream"; and the epic ensemble piece "One Day More."
In short, "Les Misérables" may not be a flawless film, but I genuinely loved it, and I left the theater feeling inspired. Although I wish director Tom Hooper would have relied a little bit less on close-up shots and had maybe featured more spoken dialogue, this is a stirring, faithful adaptation of the musical, and it's easy to see how sincere the director and the actors are about the source material. It's a movie I'd definitely recommend film fans watch before Oscar night.