A tale of two Les Miserables

two les mis kris jimena
composite photo courtesy of http://www.krisjimena.blogspot.com

When Les Miserables came out in 2012, it made me think of another version of the Oscar conteder — another version in 1998 starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. So I decided to hold off the review and do it together, after I’ve seen both films on video.

It may sound like a sacrilege to some but while Les Miserables is one of my favorite musicals, I am not as familiar with the actual story as I am with the songs. I am happy to say that basic premise of both films are the same. The story revolves around Jean Valjean, a convict who was releaqsed from prison after 19 years for stealing some bread. But while his offense was minor, he was issued a yellow passport upon release, warning people that he was very dangerous that he would need to report for parole for the rest of his life. This did not make life easy for Valjean as he was judged by people and turned away at every opportunity. But an encounter with a Bishop manages to touch Valjean’s heart and the simple act of kindness inspires him to start afresh. Years later, his hard work sees him as the just mayor of small town in France, but his troubles seem to follow him with the appointment of his former jailer Inspector Javert to his district. As he tries to keep his secret, he is faced with moral choices and new challenges that would pit the two against each other all the way to Paris.

Both movies were excellently cast and it is quite difficult to say which Jean Valjean was the best. In 1998, Liam Neeson gave life to the character in a very subtle and effective way. He was very releateable as an everyman trying to reform. His interaction with Uma Thurman’s Fantine was very heartwarming and much more clearly established.

Hugh Jackman works the docks as the convict Jean Valjean in the 2012 film's opening sequence.
Hugh Jackman works the docks as the convict Jean Valjean in the 2012 film’s opening sequence.

Hugh Jackman’s version of the character, on the other hand was much more raw and intense, perhaps due to the fact that his suffering was highlighted better from the opening sequence of the film. His performance was so gut wrenching and moving. This was  quite a feat given that he had to convey his emotions through song, and not numbers that are easy to sing at that, if the veins on his neck and forehead were any indication of its difficulty. For the part of Inspector Javert, I thought that Geoffrey Rush had a slight edge against Russel Crowe mainly because his need for order and rules was better conveyed. Crowe as the anti-hero seemed too human because of his expressive eyes, which won him the Oscars twice for his stirring performances in Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. And just to clarify, his vocals were not as bad as some bashers have indicated. Perhaps not as strong as the others but he is not a professional singer so viewers need to cut him some slack.

While Uma’s Fantine took on a lengthier part in the 1998 version, Anne Hathaway (who won Best Supporting Actress for the role) earned her keep with her emotional rendition of I Dreamed a Dream — a masterclass in acting. I can’t believe this was the same girl who starred in romantic comediess like The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. She has truly matured as an actress.

As for Cosette, I never quite connected with Claire Danes for the part, nor with her Marius, Hans Matheson. The dude looked smarmy.  In contrast, 2012  Marius Eddie Redmayne (Marius) had me enthralled from the moment he sang his first note. He completely took my breath away with his strong vocals in both his solo and ensemble performances. Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette had excellent chemistry with Jackman and she had a great voice and a charismatic persona while Amanda Seyfried as the teenage version of Cosette, did well enough  in her role, but it was nothing I have not seen before.

Marius (Eddie Redmayne) holds Eponine (Samantha Barks) behind the barricade as the fight rages on.
Marius (Eddie Redmayne) holds Eponine (Samantha Barks) behind the barricade as the fight rages on.

I noticed that the 1998 version was wanting for one vital character — Eponine, the lovesick daughter of the swindlers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter)who sold off  Cosette to Valjean after Fantine’s passing. Samantha Barks who debuted in film for the role delivered such a haunting rendition of On My Own that I don’t think there’s any lovesick girl who could ever see her performance without a handkerchief. I was completely rooting for her the entire time. Little Daniel Huttlestone also made his mark on the latest version as the streetsmart and brave orphan Gavroche. This kid is a star.

Basically, both films employed different approaches. Director Billie August (1998) chose to go the dramatic route and did not incorporate musical numbers into his film. His storytelling was slightly different to the updated version but I felt that he told a complete story and the actions of the characters were better explained. August had the advantage of having superb actors in his cast as well.

The 2012 version, helmed by Tom Hooper, stayed faithful to the musical for which the play grew famous for. It went all out with the production to produce a visual masterpiece, and depicted Paris as the desolate and decrepit place that reflected the status of people in that era. This, filmmakers supported with cast members with strong theater backgrounds that delivered compelling and larger than life performances  that roused one’s spirits with familiar songs that tugged at the heartstrings. I think the greatest advantage of the 2012 version was that it worked as an ensemble, with each character supporting the other, lending ore strength to the performances. Even the supporting cast members shone in their own right, especially Aaron Tveit who played young militant leader Enjolras. In fact, there were plenty of standouts but somehow, the performances blended into one strong showing It was tricky because one mistake in the casting could have taken the whole story down but somehow, Les Mis was able to pull it off.

All in all, Les Mis tells of a universal message that rings true up until present day. It was no surprise that both films were excellent in their own right because the source material was a literary gem that communicates to the audience on an emotional level. It spoke of stereotypes, and inequality, forgiveness and repentance, hope, love and freedom, concepts and ideals that each and every man relates to.

However, if I were to judge which I liked better, I would have to go with the musical. There is just an intensity in the performances that drew me to it, that gave it an edge over its straight drama predecessor. And it was not because any singular effort of any of the actors, as well, but rather because of the combined output of all who were involved in the film. The film has heart, as Gene Hackman quoted in The Replacements, “miles and miles of heart.” And this is just something that does not happen with every movie. Besides, Les Mis isn’t quite Les Mis without the music. But that’s just my opinion.