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The goal is not for the actors to display emotion, but for the story to make the audience feel emotions. In fact, there's often an inverse relation: The more emotion the actors show, the less the audience needs to feel. The greatest audience emotion comes when the character displays almost no emotion at times when we know that there must be unbearable inner turmoil.
In other words, Anne Hathaway sometimes comes perilously close to that precipice where the actor's emotions are pushed so hard that the audience is distracted or – the worst response of all – laughs.
Close – but she never quite goes over the edge. Maybe there are takes where she did, and we owe it to the director and editor that they never let her go to the point of absurdity.
Fortunately, because of Hugo's novel, the female parts are good but not dominant. The film belongs to three men: Jean Valjean, played to near perfection by Hugh Jackman; Marius, the young idealist and lover, in which Eddie Redmayne does achieve perfection; and police inspector Javert, in which Russell Crowe was a brilliant casting choice except for the tiny problem that he has a weak voice.
Don't get me wrong – Crowe hits the notes, and as you watch the film, you barely notice how weak and thin his singing is.
But Crowe and Hathaway are the reason why there is no reason to buy the Highlights of CD. As you watch them on the screen, you are convinced and involved. But listening to them, with no visuals to help you, Hathaway's overwrought vocal performance and Russell Crowe's weak one become nearly unlistenable.
That was the choice the filmmakers made – to subordinate the music to the movie. Because they made choices that ruined the CD, they made the movie brilliant indeed.
I cry at movies, but not at the "sad" things, or not usually. People dying don't affect me – by my age, I must have seen thousands of on-screen deaths, and I am aware that most of the time, the actors aren't really dying. I take it in stride.
No, what moves me to tears in a story are two things: magnanimity and valediction. Magnanimity – greatness of heart – comes over and over in Les Miserables; indeed, one might make a case for the idea that Victor Hugo's primary intent was to demonstrate greatness of heart, beginning with the bishop who forgives and covers for Jean Valjean's theft, and continuing through Valjean's and others' acts of honor and sacrifice to the end.
The magnanimous characters are contrasted with the small-hearted ones – the Thenardiers, who are merely selfish and low; and Javert, who is great in his relentless pursuit of right, but small in his imagination and utterly lacking in generosity.
So Javert's death strikes me as an easy way out for the writer; the Thenardiers are usually annoying; but the magnanimous characters move me, if only because I aspire to such greatness of heart, though I usually fall far short of it.
One of the best things about this production is that they cut back drastically on the Thenardiers' stage time, particularly near the end, where their lengthy and boring "comic" number always makes me impatient. There are important matters going on, and we have to watch these unamusing, dull people cavort?
The film cuts them down nearly to nothing in the second half of the film, so they really are a pleasure to watch during the screen time they do have. (Helena Bonham Carter is a delight, of course; and Sacha Baron Cohen is actually watchable; a first.)
Magnanimity brings tears to my eyes, but valediction opens the floodgates. This is the moment in a story when someone's secret greatness is revealed and publicly honored.
This is the deep underlying dissatisfaction with the superhero movies – even the best of them. Batman and Spider-man are constantly unrecognized, criticized, vilified. Yes, the audience knows their goodness; but we are hungry for goodness to be publicly known and recognized.
That's why in the book (but not the movie) Return of the King, the moment when Aragon honors Frodo and Sam is so very moving. Their sacrifices were private, seen by no one but each other. But the greatest people understood what they did, and so when Aragorn and Gandalf give Frodo and Sam their due – especially Sam, who is the least sung yet the greatest hero – deep emotion is aroused.
Think also of It's a Wonderful Life. Nobody dies, yet we cry like babies at the end. We don't cry when everything is falling apart for George Bailey, or even when he's contemplating suicide. We don't cry when we see how sad everything is in the world without him.
We cry at the end, when the whole community gathers to show how highly they value his life, his works, his sacrifices. That's when the floodgates open and we soak our kleenexes.
So it is at the end of Les Miz. Marius realizes that the stranger who saved his life in the battle was none other than his dying father-in-law; and as Valjean is dying, we see him receive honor, in vision, from Fantine, to whom he kept his word, and the bishop who claimed Valjean's soul for God, who welcomes him into heaven.
This is what apotheosis is for, and it's hard to think of a literary work in which the effect is better earned than in Hugo's novel – and in this film.
Of course, from the original concept album on forward, the musical Les Miz misunderstands what is working. The finale, as written and as performed, thinks that the emotional power is attached to the social cause: The liberation of the working classes.
It's true that the anthems of Red and Black and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" are powerful – they are a brilliantly stirring first-act curtain.
But at the end, while the display of a vast barricade that shows the people united and triumphant, is very nicely done, that is when we dry our eyes. It was Valjean's valediction, not the cause of social justice, that moved us.
Les Miserables is a musical event that bears relistening – I own all the albums and listen to them all (the French original is still the best, but none is perfect). I have seen the stage production several times and was moved each time (though toward the end of the Broadway run, the actors playing the Thenardiers became unbearably bad).
But the film of Les Miz is a watershed in filming musicals. It is, arguably, the first great musical to shed the conventions of the stage completely – there is no dancing, and there are no editing "tricks" to replace it.
If filmmakers have the wit to understand what worked here, perhaps we'll see more great film musicals; I'm not holding my breath. Hollywood usually misunderstands what makes great movies great, and imitates all the wrong things.
The very things that made Sondheim criticize the score of Les Miz are part of the reason for its success as a film. Isolated songs designed to be standalone hits do not work like this; Les Miz is not about songs, it's about story.
And story is the thing that Hollywood, or at least the money in Hollywood, doesn't comprehend. Story, when it happens, is brought about almost against the will of the people doing the funding....continued on page 3