There are not many movies that centre on pain and hardships, or touch on the virtues of love and mercy.
My family got hold of Claude Lelouch’s 1995 French movie ‘Les Miserables’ on VCD a couple of years back. It is actually a semblance of Lelouch’s own life as a Jew who grew up with his mother telling him telling him that he was Cosette, his father, Simon, was Jean Valjean, and she was Fantine.
I came away from the 175 minutes of interlocking heartrending tales of destitution and hardship shaken, in spite of the goodness and faith that eventually triumphed over tribulations.
With trepidation therefore, I braced myself for the must-see Hollywood musical version - adapted from the Broadway version of Victor Hugo’s novel - directed by Tom Hooper.
This time, it is shorter - 158 minutes – and screened in the digital hall of Lido 1 that has the widest screen and a superb sound system made for epic movies such as this. On this weekday morning, we felt privileged to be enjoying the 900-seater with just a handful of people!
Having seen the French version, I was able to enjoy this musical and its cinematography without getting too emotional and then spending time to recompose!
Although the Hollywood cast don’t speak a word – every song is performed life during filming – there is a greater embodiment of soul and vulnerability in songs than spoken lines. Maybe that’s how singing helps people to let go of anguish in their soul. It also makes gut-wrenching scenes more bearable to watch.
Every scene is as picturesque as it is richly lyrical. It is an outstanding showcase of human grit, grace and stoicism in the face of humiliating circumstances and people who mercilessly hound you.
But it’s also a tale of hope found only in the darkest hours - Éponine when she dies in the arms of Marius whom she secretly loves, Valjean when the Bishop’s unexpected gracious gift of two candlestick holders spares him from returning to prison, and when Valjean indeed pays it forward by showing kindness to the dying Fantine.
Hugh Jackman brings a commanding screen presence to his role as Valjean and is outstanding in representing the antithesis of cruelty, vengeance, and legalism. (Brings to my mind Bible accounts of David who repeatedly held himself back from killing King Saul even when he had opportunities to do so.)
Russell Crowe is convincing as Javert who lives only on the doctrine of justice at all costs. He is repeatedly countered by Valjean’s inexorable mercy. In their final face off, he bows to the adage that good will always triumph over evil by jumping to end his life. In so doing, he deals with his own demons, and so spares Valjean's life.
Samantha Barks shines in her screen debut as Éponine. She holds her own beside heavyweight actors like Hugh Jackman and Helena Bonham Carter.
Both movies end with a wedding.
At the end of Lelouch’s French movie, the universal theme of hope is encapsulated in one line, “We are always a few sorrows ahead...but the best years of our lives are yet to come.”
Hooper’s musical finale is, however, a beautiful celebration of human love that triumphs over cynicism and adversities; as well as a rapturous vision of hope. That it is set in a monastery only elucidates that God alone is the source of love and hope that is beyond reason, beyond justice, and beyond expectations.