I have a real problem: I love the story of “Les Miserables.”
The songs are magnificent. There are great actors doing wonderful scenes. But I hate the way this movie was made. There. I said it.
The movie, which received eight Oscar nominations including one for best picture, is an adaptation of the musical “Les Miserables,” which is an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel.
We are presented Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner about to be paroled. His crime is stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child.
As he leaves the prison we meet Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), the police officer who will be a constant shadow over Jean’s life.
As a marked man, Jean can find no place to take him in. He ends up in a monastery, befriended by the bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who feeds Jean and gives him a warm place to rest.
Jean repays this hospitality by stealing some of the monastery’s silver pieces. When Jean is caught and returned, the bishop tells the police that Jean was given the silver.
He then hands Jean the largest pieces, the candleholders, and makes him promise to be a better man, a redeemed man.
Jean knows that he has to make a clean sweep of his life, so he tears up his parole papers and goes out to become another person.
The movie moves forward in time. Jean is now the mayor of a town and the owner of a factory.
One of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is accused of wrongdoing and is cast out. Out into the streets she goes, to sell herself to pay for the care of a daughter, Cosette.
Fantine, now seriously ill, gets into a scrabble where a man accuses her of assault.
Javert, who has come to the city as part of its protection from the government of France, is about to take her to jail.
Though Jean is terrified that Javert will remember him, he intervenes and takes Cosette to the hospital. But it is too late and she dies.
Her last wish was for her daughter to be cared for, which Jean promises to do.
Years pass and we see Jean caring for Cosette under the backdrop of the French Revolution, while Javert, once again, finds his way into the life of Jean.
What makes this movie bad is that it was never meant to be a movie. The actors are under the direction of a filmmaker and not a stage director.
There are scenes that lose their dramatic punch because of the way the movie is put together.
One example is a scene where four actors sing together. One actor is standing at the door of a house, two actors are inside the house, while another actor stands on the staircase of the house. These four sing while the camera cuts back and forth.
We see the two; then the one at the door; then the two; then the one on the stairs. All the drama of that moment is gone because we cannot see the four simultaneously as they sing.
When the play is staged, the director places the actors in a way in which the audience can see all four. One stands stage left. Two stand at center stage. The other actor stands just above the two that are in the center.
You can see it all simultaneously. The drama of the moment is left before the viewer and not muddled by camera work and a director telling the camera, and us, what to see.
Yet it is hard for me to be totally down on this movie because it is one of the best illustrations of Christian redemption in recent times.
The story of Jean Valjean promising the bishop to be a better man and then living that out is extraordinary. Jean does not have the Sunday kind of religion, but the everyday kind.
The character of Javert, who sings that grace comes because one follows the rules, is a powerful illustration of what is not Christian.
And then there is real drama in the story of Fantine, who falls so far from grace and sings that life has killed the “dream I dream.” It moves one to tears.
But for me, the message was muddled because of the way the movie was made.
Yes, they let the actors sing their songs live. Yes, this is a powerful story.
But I kept watching wondering why the scenes were shot this way and thinking how much better this is as it was intended – as a play.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, (based on the novel by Victor Hugo)
Cast: Hugh Jackman: Jean Valjean; Russell Crowe: Javert; Anne Hathaway: Fantine; Amanda Seyfried: Older Cosette; Eddie Redmayne: Marius.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.