Friday, December 28, 2012

an atheist's adoration of Les Misérables

As it turned out, I didn't have to wait the twenty-five days, as I expected. When the offer to head to LA came, it included info about the junket activities and mentioned that there would be a "surprise special screening" of a movie on the Universal lot.

Upon reading those words, I just knew that it would be Les Misérables. It seemed like the obvious choice for a special event for our group, and I have to admit that I got even more excited about that prospect than for everything else amazing that was to come.

Our final confirmation email came a few days before the trip, and our lovely Universal rep excitedly revealed that we would be watching the film in a Universal screening room a few weeks before it released in the theaters! My only sadness was that I wouldn't be seeing it with hubby, and a bit of fear that I would make a complete fool of myself in front of this group of bloggers what with all the blubbering and sobbing I expected to occur.

Thankfully, by the end of our viewing, I was not the only one sniffling and wiping away the tears. I was however, the only one who planned ahead with the tissues, which meant I was the only one having to dispose of an embarrassingly large pile of scrunched up kleenex!

I also was the only person scratching away thoughts on a pad of sticky notes in the dark. I just wanted a record of that flurry of impressions and immediate reactions, so I packed the notes and hoped that they'd be legible. Here's a sampling (and if you're still reading this post this far in, I'm only to assume that you're already a fan of the story of Les Misérables so any plot points that are mentioned won't actually be spoilers):
  • Valjean re: Mon. Bienvenu-- voice cracking during song perfectly
  • transitions-- movie good like stage
  • Fantine-- BLONDE!
  • Russell Crowe singing- BLAH
  • everything too fast... man I love the book
  • desperation apparent-- teeth! (but not right ones)
  • Javert --> Valjean admitting guilt, new lyrics?
  • fight scene in hosp-- AMAZING
  • MT & T-- same comedy appeal, a little darker
  • new songs for movie? Suddenly?
  • RC-- Stars, not as bad as I had thought
  • Gavroche in the elephant!!
  • candlesticks again and again
  • One More Day- great scene back and forths, even red flag!
  •  Do you hear the people sing? WOW!
  • God on High-- no Colm W. but good
  • Fighting-- DAMN
  • hanging with flag!
  • giving Javert redemption? NO-- would not happen w/Gavroche
As you can see, much of my awe was recorded, along with a bit of my usual nitpicking when it comes to film adaptations of books that I love. Overall, I was left feeling awed and impressed, for the spirit of the book and the stage production were captured so well with this movie, and individual performances were outstanding. Anne Hathaway is getting major props for her performance, and I'm of the opinion that all the hoopla is well deserved. She rocked it as Fantine, even though I can't help but wonder why they didn't dye her hair blonde if they were going to chop it all off for real, anyway. (Details like this from the book are very easy to accommodate!)
Once I got past Eddie Redmayne's shaky-chin-singing (something that always bugs me), I was blown away by his portrayal of Marius. He's an often under-appreciated character, but he did a wonderful job portraying his indecision-turned-dedication to the revolutionary cause. And his voice was outstanding!

Eh, I feel compelled to say something  more about Russell Crowe's casting, but my notes kind of say it all... he may be a singer in a band, but his voice in this type of performance just didn't do it for me. He was too... simplistic in his singing. He didn't do much more than sing note to note in a blah kind of way... not sure if those words really convey what I thought, but I think the casting folks could have come up with a different actor who still could have done the uprightness and sternness of the character of Javert as well as Crowe did, but could have actually sung the important songs much better.

But the best part of all? Two words-- Colm Wilkinson.
To see him on the screen made me so, so stinking happy. If you don't know already, Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway, and though his voice was not the first I ever heard in this role, once I did hear him sing even just a few notes of Bring Him Home, I knew he was the best Valjean ever. Now to see him older, grayer, and in the role of the Bishop in the film is beyond heartwarming. I wonder if other folks who've read the massive novel have felt the same sadness that I have in watching the critical role of the Bishop be made into such a small part in the stage production. Monseigneur Bienvenu opens the novel and sets the example for all characters to come in the many, many pages following. He is the first to demonstrate self-sacrifice and selflessness, and he is the first to provide a template for a life lived in a "holy" manner. His actions spark the turning point in Valjean's new life, and his influence is felt by Valjean throughout the rest of his years. To see Wilkinson in this role, even if only onscreen for a short time, was the most amazing thing for me.
One final note... I can't help but be amused myself at the irony of my adoration of this particular story-- one that has a religious belief at its core, one that bases its entire premise on the existence and influence of a supreme being. I'm about 300 pages into my third reading of the book, revisiting old notes I made in this copy when I read it years ago and adding new notes in different pen colors as well. It's no secret that Hugo has placed God as a central character to this epic tale, and even the "bad guy" has a solid faith, albeit one that he sees in a different light than most others.
This faith and belief guides most characters through their darkest hours, most especially Jean Valjean. In one pivotal point in the story, Valjean (in his new persona as Monsieur Madeleine) is handed an opportunity to break away from his past completely and be free of worry that he'll ever be connected with his previous crimes, but it would come at the cost of unjustly burdening another human being with that past. In the play, as in the movie, this decision is made over the course of one song, an apparently quick, though somewhat difficult, conclusion to draw. In the novel, however, this is drawn out for many pages of torturous internal debate for Valjean. As he goes back and forth between scenarios, this passage stood out to me on this reading: (as quoted from this translation of the novel)
He examined the situation and found it an unheard-of one; so unheard-of that in the midst of his reverie, by some strange impulse of almost inexplicable anxiety, he rose from his chair, and bolted his door. He feared lest something might yet enter. He barricaded himself against all possibilities. 
A moment afterwards he blew out his light. It annoyed him.

It seemed to him that somebody could see him.

Who? Somebody?

Alas! what he wanted to keep out of doors had entered; what he wanted to render blind was looking upon him. His conscience. 

His conscience, that is to say, God.

As I read this, I'm with Hugo until that last line. As I wrote in my notes, "a leap I don't need to make." To me, conscience is enough without bringing in a supreme deity, because I believe that people can be aware of what is right toward humanity without the external constructs of a religious belief system. I happen to think myself a fairly "good" person, and I understand this concept of an internal voice/conscience personally in my own decision making.

What I see as the main theme of Les Misérables is pretty simple. There are two concepts that are ranked as the highest aspirations of several characters-- from Monseigneur Bienvenu to Inspector Javert to Jean Valjean, and they are repeated again and again in the text: to be honest and to be good. This is the straightforward decree that the Bishop gives to Valjean when he saves him from re-arrest. How each character personifies these characteristics may be different from one to the other, but the basic concept is there, and in my head, they are inspirational and attainable goals without a religious belief. So, this hard-core atheist can still absolutely adore every bit of this text and play and movie, and even find inspiration toward my own life while looking past the inclusion of a supreme being at the core of the story. 

I've always been intrigued by the last line of the main part of the play-- To love another person is to see the face of God. I've even contemplated that as a tattoo... oh, the irony. But the thing is, I get the sentiment of the statement, even if I define the word "God" differently than some others. The act of truly loving another person is the highest and most sacred experience I think possible for a human being. 

While I know many will not agree with my perspective here, that's fine. I think it's much easier and accepted for someone with a religious background to speak plainly and directly about their beliefs than it is for a person who does not hold a belief in a deity, so it's not easy to put this out there, but it's something that has been on my mind as I'm immersed once again in Victor Hugo's immense and amazing story.

Here's hoping that I'll get to see the new film again with hubby this time, because goodness knows I need someone to talk to about the performances! Have you seen the movie? I'd love to hear others' thoughts!

Forever in awe of Hugo,