Les Misérables tells the story of Valjean, a proud and decent man imprisoned for stealing bread to save his sister’s family from starving. Once released, he is viciously pursued by police officer Javert for breaking the terms of his parole, but makes a Hardyesque career leap into respectability, becoming a mayor and factory owner. His path crosses that of his poor employee Fantine whose grownup daughter Cosette is to fall fatefully in love with revolutionary firebrand Marius just as Paris erupts in violence, and as Valjean must make his final reckoning with Javert.
It conquers its audience with weapons all its own: not passion so much as passionate sincerity, not power so much as overwhelming force. Every line, every note, every scene is belted out with strong conviction and unbroken, continuous intensity. The physical strength of this movie is impressive: it is inspiring and done with enormous effort, just like Valjean’s as he lifts the flagpole at the beginning of the film. You can almost see the movie’s muscles flexing and the veins standing out like cords on his forehead. At the end of the film, you really have experienced something.
The most heart felt scene comes in his movie’s opening act, as Valjean is astonished and moved by the Christ-like charity of the Bishop who takes him in, and forgives him for attempting to steal silverware, making him a present of it and protecting him from arrest (“I have saved your soul for God”). Valjean sings a monologue directly to camera (“Why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”), eyes blazing with a new knowledge. There’s no doubt about it, this scene grabs the attention of every viewer.
Other moments are less successful. Fantine’s keen rendition of the Dreamed a Dream, in extreme close-up, has been much admired, but for me her performance and appearance is a bit over acted. Her poor character is supposed to have pitifully sold her teeth to a street dentist.
The star is Jean Valjean. But Javert offers the most open, human performance I have seen from him. His singing is so sweetly not self conscious that there is something puzzlingly engaging about Javert, even when he’s being a cruel, unbending law-officer and royalist spy. I’ll never love Les Misérables the way its fans love it, and I’m uncertain about the film, with its strange hidden messages. But as big-screen show, this is unique.