Les Miserables – an undeserved feast

Things I know: I’m just me. I’m no critic, I’m barely a professional musician; I’m just a mom and a Pastor’s wife with little more to do than chase my kids and listen to Pandora. Truly. So I’m not sure why I am taking this review so very seriously. But I am. And I have. So here goes.

When I found out that the film Les Miserables would be released in mid-December, I made a note in my calendar to ensure that I would see it on opening day. Several weeks later, the opening date was changed to December 25th, and as a pastor’s wife and mom to a Christmas baby, I knew full well that I would no longer be able to see it the day it opened. Undaunted, I decided to take the pressure off of my husband and family, and chose to see it once school was back in session.

Yesterday was the day. I woke up, ready to enjoy the first ‘alone’ time I would have in many weeks… and immediately happened upon a barfing 8-year-old. That’s ok, I thought. Not today. No movie today. No big deal. So I continued on, tucking my deep desire to see the film on the big screen away for another indeterminate time… when Scott came home and said, ‘I’ve got this. You go’.

For he knew that the delay of this pilgrimage for another day might be too much for me to bear.

You see, it is only as the film has been released that I have been able to articulate why it matters so much to me. There is not another piece of music, another film, another album, another set of songs, that is as much the soundtrack to my adult life as this soundtrack is. I have been singing the songs from Les Miserables since the fall of 1987, when Mr. Anderson handed out the medley [the grey one] to our choir at Southwest High School in Green Bay. This doesn’t make me remotely unique – I bet most high school choirs in the late 80’s did this medley. But most choir members weren’t me, or my friends, gathered around the piano at 2050 White Oak Terrace in Green Bay night after night, singing the remarkable songs from this show, amidst the clouds of smoke from my dearest friends and their Carol Martens-appointed ash trays. Most every gathering, every trip to Kroll’s, every night together included at least a few moments around the piano, and these songs always managed to be sung, and my mom always popped her head into the living room to tell us how much she loved to hear us sing. Always.

So it was that blessed baggage that kept rising to the top when I took time to consider why I was so eager to see this movie. I am not normal. I know that. But this experience, even before I had it, was as sacred to me as almost anything. And I would not be thwarted, not by Christmas releases or barfing children.

I should also say that I read every word I could get my hands on about the film before it came out – and every scathing word and review, including those from some of my oldest and dearest friends, also musicians – and they painted a pretty grim picture. I wrestled long and hard with my expectations on the way up. Had I set myself up for disappointment? Could any film live up to my high stakes? I had purposed in my heart to go to take in the entire experience – not to critique the singing, which I knew wouldn’t be vocally sound or in most ways impressive – but for the love of the story. I knew that I couldn’t go wrong if I kept my focus on the story. Neither Amanda nor Russell could take that away from me. As Scott said, ‘So, you’ve decided to like it, no matter what. You really don’t even need to see it, then, because that could make you love it less’.

But see it, I did, and I settled into my seat with a gallon or so of diet Coke, ready to take it all in at noon, with only a handful of us in the theater.

I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. I don’t know how I could have been. Though I could sing you every word of the score – Truly. Every word. – I could not adequately prepare for the feast that I was about to be served.

I have never been so moved by a film. If Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne aren’t nominated for Oscars, there is no justice. There might not be higher praise that I can give the film than this:

nothing bothered me.


Do you know me? Because if you do, you know that things bother me. I had expressed eyebrow raises about the casting of Russell Crowe, and loud words of protest regarding Amanda Seyfried, whose singing in Mamma Mia was sub-par [at best]. But when sitting in those seats and taking in the story and the saga, I was completely unbothered by either one of them. Crowe sang like a man wrestling with his soul. I loved everything he did. His pharisaical struggle was a marvel to watch – to see a man so unable to grasp the truth that ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ was powerful… and the one transparent moment when he displayed a heart full of love was more than I could take. I was glad I was alone – have never sobbed so hard in a theater. And Seyfried, who thankfully got some vocal help [like a substitute] on the two high Bs, rose to the occasion marvelously. The bar was set very high for the two of them, and they performed both admirably and appropriately.

But oh my word. Eddie Redmayne. It would not be possible for me to love a Marius more than I have loved Michael Ball, but since I missed my window to see him perform Marius live, I believe my affections may have shifted. This young man, freckles and all, brought love-sick Marius to life in the most beautiful, pleasing way. His physical youthfulness only added to the poignancy of the unwinnable war he and his ‘brothers’ waged. Redmayne was a revelation. Where have they been hiding this guy? Samantha Barks as Eponine was pretty much perfect, but we expected that, because we all heard her on the 25th anniversary concert and agreed that she was a rockstar. Her translations to screen were perfect. She’ll be one to watch in the years ahead – she’s only 22!

Hugh Jackman was born to play Jean Valjean on screen. He was perfect. His eyes… oh my. The moment when he meets Cosette in the woods… and of course, the ending – the range that he covers in the 17-year spread of the story is mind-boggling. So, so good. Just so good.

What can be said about Anne Hathaway? This is most certainly her moment. The single-camera single-take performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is one for the record books, the archives. Whenever I sing the ‘pretty version’ of it now, it feels inappropriate and incomplete. That’s just a song. She sang a story – a snapshot – a heartbeat – rock bottom. Most affecting thing I’ve ever seen on screen.

All of the other second tier and supporting characters were great. The Thenardiers were a little boring, but that was better than too obnoxious. The boys at the barricade – especially Enjolras – were as would be expected – strong, good singers, passionate, and great at dying on camera.

Special shout-out to the child actors who played young Cosette and Gavroche with absolute perfection. Cosette stole my heart with her first note, and Gavroche with his last breath. Great kids.

Now, in fairness, let me be clear: I would have NO interest in hearing most of these singers in concert, nor would I stand in line to hear them sing pretty much anything else. But the collective whole of the movie worked for me. So well, in fact, that I fell apart – twice – on the phone after I left, after crying buckets of tears throughout the film. I had to run a couple of errands while I was up in the Dells, and I called Scott when I got to the van, and simply couldn’t speak. But it was when I called my Dad to check in and let him know that I had seen the film that I completely fell apart – tears, snot, sobs, the whole deal – I’m sure he thought that someone I loved had died. I just could NOT get it together. And that’s, I think, the magic of the Les Mis story in Victor Hugo’s words, and on stage and in film – that redemption is possible. That there is always hope. That dreams are worth dreaming. That mercy triumphs over judgment. That an eternity worth waiting for does indeed await us. That forgiveness has power. That unexpected generosity can change the course of one life – many lives.

Les Miserables made me miss my mom, and it made me miss Misty, Jini, Kurt, Aaron, Thomas, Scott, Jeff, Chris, Mr. A., and so many more; but it reminded me that to love another person is to see the face of God; that I am blessed to have loved lots and lots of ‘another persons’ in my life, and that I am so incredibly thankful to have been marked and shaped by a soundtrack like this. Go see this movie. Lay aside your high expectations for vocal perfection; you won’t find it here. But you will find a marvelous story, so beautifully told that you just might be changed.


47 thoughts on “Les Miserables – an undeserved feast

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more!!!

    All that poo-pooing over Russell Crowe – he sang the way a man who is struggling to live a lie must sing. He was wooden as one who cannot understand that mercy always triumphs over judgment – there is little to emote when one is so rigid in beliefs.

    And I couldn’t believe that Anne Hathaway could sing while crying ugly. Seriously, that in it of itself was a triumph – carrying a tune and having cameras capture every teardrop, sniffle, snot, etc.

    Just hearing the opening notes made my heart catch. I will have to back armed with a box of kleenex.

  2. Ah, my friend. You nailed it in three words: nothing bothered me. I think Anne Hathaway’s moment was one of the richest scenes in cinema. Thank you for writing this. Thank you very much.

  3. What a passionate review, Steph. If ever a movie deserved one, this is it. I rarely cry, and this movie had me sobbing. I agree wholeheartedly with you about Russell Crowe and the actor who played Marius. I was most blown away by the two of them. Phenomenal.

    Hugh Jackman won me over with his eyes, his dialogue. Anne Hathaway owns amazing talent. The voices and choral scene with the rebels blew me away. Amanda S. was absolutely perfect for the part. The stand-out voice of the entire movie was the rebel in red, Aaron Tveit. Wow. My daughter and I loved, loved his voice!

    If there was a low point for me it was the Eponine actress with her contemporary-sounding scoops and slides during her solos. I worry she may date the movie, but I see you disagree, and perhaps you are right. I hope so.

    Loved the movie. Loved the review, Steph. Thank you!

  4. Well done, Steph – the whole story was an immense accomplishment. I plan to see it 2 or 3 more times to gather in the subtleties that I know must be there.

  5. “…And that’s, I think, the magic of the Les Mis story in Victor Hugo’s words, and on stage and in film – that redemption is possible. That there is always hope. That dreams are worth dreaming. That mercy triumphs over judgment. That an eternity worth waiting for does indeed await us. That forgiveness has power. That unexpected generosity can change the course of one life – many lives.”
    I found your blog through Donna Boucher.
    I have only heard one song from Les Mis. I have never seen a production of it. I live in France and anxiously await for its release. Why? Because when I first came to France (twenty-five years ago) I read Les Mis, cover to cover, through the streets of Paris. I re read it again when my children were babies, I read the first chapter many times to them when they were older, but not old enough to truly understand.
    I cried reading your review, because I know I will feel what you wrote.

  6. Beautiful review Steph!! I have never been a fan of Les Miz (which I’m surprised wasn’t a requirement for me to become your roomie), but after reading this review I want nothing more than to see it. Now!! I think I’ll go alone, to be able to take it all in without worrying about the person next to me and get the full experience. Thank you for taking the time to write an honest and thoughtful review!

    • Oh The-a. Such memories. I’m surprised I didn’t sit you down in my room and narrate the entire story to you as we listened to the soundtrack!!

  7. Steph, How GLAD I am that you are in my life….and we can be in touch thru FB….WHAT a review ! So now I know that in addition to ALL your other, many talents, you are a wonderful writer !! Love you !

  8. I take issue with only one statement. “I am barely a professional musician.” Seriously?? You are an amazing professional musician which makes this review so compelling. You have renewed my hope. I MUST see this movie. And if anyone is a barometer for my chances for sobs and snot it is you. I will bring tissues.

    Oh – and you write beautifully.

  9. Even reading your review made me cry. You are so right. Like I said to my husband…I feel like I have been waiting for this movie my whole life. I’ve been singing it since I was 14! The collective whole of the movie was inspiring. I could nit pick…an intro cut here, a note here or there, but why? It was fabulous. I really understood Fantine and Marius and their struggles. You put it all into words so marvelously. Well done!

  10. Thanks for your review, Steph. It is wonderful!

    I said on Facebook that I would post some comments that I had made on a friend’s post. There was a conversation on her Facebook page about Christians who didn’t want to see Les MIs because of the prostitution. When Les Mis was performed by the local high school, I heard Christians disapprove of the “bad” aspects of the musical. My friend posted this article: http://kuyperiancommentary.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/prostitution-chaos-and-christian-art/

    And these are the words I wrote: In Les Mis I saw in the utter helplessness of Fantine’s circumstance was myself and others who often find themselves in situations they never dreamed life would be like. I saw every girl who comes in to the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer. I was convicted to simply extend a kind, helpful hand to those who I might otherwise wish to look down upon. I saw myself in Valjean, in the shackles of sin and being set free from the bondage of sin and death. I saw myself in Javert sticking to the letter of the law and wanting justice so badly that it rocks my paradigm when I see mercy instead. I saw myself in Eponine, Marius, and Cossette. What do we miss when we refuse to see?

    I know this has nothing to do with your review, but I wanted to share it with you.

    Looking forward to seeing Les Mis again.

  11. You have articulated very well what I myself have been trying to say to those who want to know why I Iiked it so much. I will be sharing your review with them. I saw it last night, and have never cried so much during a movie and this morning after reading your review I am crying again. I had read reviews that Russel Crowe was not “good.” I thought he was excellent. I so loved that they did not record the music ahead for the actors to lip-sync. Oh what a huge difference that made. Can you imagine Ann lip-syncing her songs? Or anyone else for that matter! Russell Crowe pinning the pin~~lost it. Marius singing for his dead “brothers”~~lost it. My girls were counting how many times they cried and which scenes they “lost-it.” I just enjoyed the movie, the story, the acting and the singing. Amazing!

  12. Love your review! I echo much of it — yes — Amen! A few points of my own:

    1. You — barely a professional musician? – I almost spewed my Diet Coke on my computer!

    2. “I’ve got this. You go.” We knew Scott was awesome and this confirms!

    3. I had a hard moment early in the movie where I was disturbed by the nasal quality that kept creeping into Crowe’s voice. It was on the verge of ruining it for me. I had to say “Samantha! Stop it!” Then I was able to get past that and love his acting which was incredible. And wasn’t the Javert / Valjean “fight scene” in the hospital so wonderful?

    4. Michael started crying before I did–I loved that! He was so moved, he preached on it the next day. 🙂 Yes, it actually worked with the lectionary! LOL

    5. I came home on such a high but I knew I would see negative criticism among my FB friends. My point is this: They weren’t performing songs. It wasn’t a concert. They were ACTING. Their dialogue just happened to be 99.9% song rather than spoken. If you approach it from the standpoint of acting, then they totally nailed it. Yes, they could have chosen some better singers, but are those better singers capable of the acting that we witnessed? I was transported into the story. I lived each moment with them. I saw meaning in those songs that I completely missed in the stage production. It was richer, fuller, beautiful. I will always love those songs–I’ve sung them so many times, unable to decide if I would rather be Cosette or Eponine or Fantine–but I will never hear them the same way again.

    6. I will be crushed if Anne Hathaway doesn’t get a shiny gold trophy for her performance. It was incredible! The most beautiful, moving thing I have ever seen on the big screen. My goodness she was perfect for that part.

    7. I love that the songs are still swirling in my head a week later and that I find myself spontaneously humming/singing/whistling them throughout my day.

    8. I am SO GLAD that you loved the movie. I knew it meant a lot and I really wanted you to love it!

  13. Steph:

    I love theater, especially muscial theater, but alas, do not make time or budgetary choices which allow me to go very often. It pains me to admit to never having seen this live. Even more, I only knew of one song: “I Dreamed a Dream”, and only because of Susan Boyle’s internet sensation. I am a bit older and was out of school when the music was in the schools.

    I also know about the production, except that it starred Hugh Jackman. I knew none of the other cast. Furthermore I did not find out it was shot one camera, live until after I saw it.

    So I went with no expectations.

    And I am sorry for what I missed all these years. I dod not even know the story, which captured me. We can change. We are not destined to be what we have been.

    It pained me when Javer chose to end his life rather than to accept that he was forgiven.

    I did not cry – not because it was not worthy of tears, but rather because I was so taken with the story. It was beautiful. And even better – Debbi was there at my side as we were captured in the moment.

    And I echo the others: You ARE a professional musician. Getting paid for it makes you a professional. But even more than that, you are an awesome musician. We enjoy what ever opportunities we have had to hear you – whether in worship or in public performance.

    • This might have been the first movie I’ve seen in the theater since 2009, when the Kaisers moved to South Carolina. 🙂 Kim and I used to escape together. You should consider reading the book, Mike. It’s wordy, but so worth it!

  14. I’m so glad Donna shared this post with us. I now wish I had graduated from high school a decade later when Les Mis songs would have taken the place of our Celebrate Life and Annie.

  15. This review left me in tears. I, too, had super high hopes for this movie. My husband teaches the abridged version of the book to his 7th and 8th graders every year and one of the highlights for him is seeing the kids fall in love, not only with the story, but with the soundtrack. They watch the 10th and 25th anniversary versions in class and go on a field trip to see the musical if it’s playing in Chicago – if not, they go to a local high school production. All this background to say, there is not a musical we love more or have seen more often in our home. You have so eloquently stated so many of the high points of this brilliant adaptation. Hugh, Anne, Eddie, Russell, Colm and on and on. So much talent, so much passion. I regularly cry at movies. My husband, however, never does. It might sound strange, but it was a special experience to share tears with each other and our daughter during this film — and when we discussed it afterwards. We loved it even more the second time. You write so beautifully, Steph. I’m so glad I “met” you through Quiet Life!

    • What a great memory, Mary. I’m all about the occasion of things like this, too. I’m so glad you shared the experience with them!!

  16. …”that redemption is possible. That there is always hope. That dreams are worth dreaming. That mercy triumphs over judgment. That an eternity worth waiting for does indeed await us. That forgiveness has power. That unexpected generosity can change the course of one life – many lives.”

    Beautifully written, Steph. Wow, just wow. My kids go back to school on Monday and I will see it this week for sure. I can’t wait. Thanks for sharing your heart.

  17. I can’t wait, Steph!!! While Meghan and fam were here we babysat Mikayla so they could have a date. They wanted to see a movie, but couldn’t decide between Les Mis, Hobbit and Lincoln. I voted for Lincoln, because that was the only movie I had seen, and I knew they would go see Les Mis and Hobbit anyway. That is, as long as they can get a family member in Downer’s Grove to watch sweet Mikayla. They settled on the Hobbit and loved it. But you can bet I will be sharing your review w/ Meghan!
    I guess Les Mis was before my time, we never did it in chorus at Green Bay Preble. Had we done it, I know I would have enjoyed chorus more. I Dreamed a Dream would have been much more inspiring than To Dream the Impossible Dream!
    Thanks for your review, Steph. You are a wonderful writer and MUSICIAN, an incredibly talented person. I will look forward to what else you have to say. 🙂

  18. THANK YOU for saying this PERFECTLY! These have been my thoughts, I have seen the Les Mis movie twice now and wish I could see it more times in the theatre! I have never been so affected by the song “I dreamed a dream” than I have with this movie and I understand so much more of the story. Of COURSE the singing isn’t as “good” as the professionals on broadway, but that was NEVER the point of this movie. Again, THANK you so much for putting words to my thoughts! 🙂

  19. Saw your review on Donna’s blog and had to comment because you expressed my thougts exactly. I never have been so moved by a film either, and I consider it a pure gift to have been able to see this adaptation on screen. Redmayne’s Empty Chairs at Empty Tables tore my heart out. And I love that my 15 year old daughter has been walking around for days singing all the songs!

    • As I tried hard to say in my review, much of my love for it came from the context of my youth – my mom’s love for it [she died 2 1/2 years ago], the way we sang the songs for YEARS [just like this guy], and yes – I had the t-shirt and the two disc set too. Interesting how everyone has a different experience with films – I think much of it has to do with expectations.

      • Yes, I would agree. Thank you for your beautifully written review, helped me look at the movie a different way.

  20. I just had to add my compliments to your review. I cried while reading your review because it was SO spot-on to my opinion. Like you, Les Mis holds a special place in my heart. I read the book in high school, not having any idea how beautiful the story would be when I first started reading it. Then to learn it was made into a musical (I was a little out a touch, I guess) and sitting on a piano bench with my first love, singing “I Dreamed A Dream” and he singing the one about the chair. Over and over we sang them, and still I’d never seen the play. Fast forward 5 years, and my brother played Jean Valjean for his high school senior performance. Of course I cried while I watched him because he’s my little brother and he was playing such a grown up role. He so beautifully characterized someone much more mature and who has experienced heart-wrenching decisions and complexities. So when I saw the film last week with a friend, I was taken right back to all those moments in my life when I’d encountered the story. Emotions overcame me for all kinds of reasons as the story went on. I remembered watching my brother on the little stage singing over Marius with just as much emotion as Hugh. I remembered my college boyfriend and how he was probably trying to tell me something when he asked me to sing “On My Own” for him… I never took a clue and he ended up dumping me cold turkey months later. And I remember reading the story at 17 years old and understanding redemption for the first time. Ugh, it was just so good that I keep rambling!
    I feel just like you- I’d never want to see any of those ‘singers’ in concert, but the cast just worked together somehow, and it was gorgeous! I was glued to my seat, and I’ve probably sat through a total of 5 movies in my entire life. So thank you for your words and for making me feel a little less abnormal for loving this movie so much 😉

  21. Followed the link to your review from Thomas McKenzie’s review. I enjoyed your review very much. Encapsulated much of what I thought of the film too. I saw the movie the last day it was available in my area. Very little prior connection to the story, having only seen one movie adaptation with Richard Jordan & Tony Perkins. I LOVED this movie! It was amazing how much emotion and how much of the story could be expressed in sometimes just a few songs or minutes on screen. Hathaway really wasn’t on screen all that much but her performance along with the Bishop’s performance held the story together & bracketed Valjean’s journey of redemption.

    Anyway, I could go on & on about the movie. Can’t wait till the DVD is available. Thank you again for your stellar review.

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