If I were to use one word to describe the Les Misérables movie, it would be "intense". It was the kind of movie that made you cry, but not as much as "I Am Sam" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and it was the kind of movie that made you tense, but not as much as "Mission Impossible". While Les Misérables wasn't outstandingly good at evoking one single emotion, it produced a spectrum that left the viewer feeling as though they had just survived some incredible life experience as they walked out of the theatre.
One reason why I think the film did such an effective job of this was because of the incredible actors (including Anne Hathaway!). I especially appreciated the talent of the child actors in this film. The singing was also very magnificent and passionate. Apparently, some critics did not appreciate the fact that the audio was taken straight from the film (rather than pre-recorded, polished, and slapped back on) but personally I really liked hearing the actor's real singing voices. It made the experience much more authentic. In fact, while I was watching Les Misérables I couldn't help but get the feeling I was watching theatre. The pacing of shots was slower, the voices had been unaltered, and even some elements of the set felt reminiscent of theatre. Some people might not agree with the aesthetic choices, but I felt it added a cultured feel and showed respect to the history of this wonderful story.
Another reason why this film was so intense was the use of some very heady themes. For one, the role of transformative religious experiences, especially in the case of the main character Jean Valjean, was incredibly central, and as such the viewer cannot help but feel the intensity of the struggle. I would not describe myself as being a religious person, but when watching Les Mierables I felt and saw religion the way people during that time period felt and saw religion. I found this to be an incredibly moving experience.
Another theme that surfaced was the idea of what one should be willing to die for. During the film, a group of young political revolutionaries, one of whom was not over ten years old, are brutally slaughtered fighting for their beliefs. One of the revolutionaries was even a woman who suffered terribly from unrequited love and died saving the man who would never love her. I found this revolution, and the theme of political action in the face of death, to be uncomfortably relatable, as it reminded me of those who had participated in Occupy Wall Street protests, and how they had been attacked by police. It was worrying to realize how close our society is to massive bloodshed, and yet it made me wonder if as a society we have become worn down, and why we were no longer to risk death for the good of civil liberties. Needless to say, I felt very conflicted about this.
Another interesting question that arose was about human nature. Jean Valjean seems to believe that people are capable of redeeming themselves and are generally good, while his enemy Javert believes, while appealing to the imagery of Lucifer, that once a human being falls into sin they must be punished and can never return to a respectable status. This theme was closely tied with questions about the nature of God and whether he is forgiving. This conflict was incredibly passionate not only because it was closely tied to theological beliefs but because you could see the entire world view of both parties and how both parties were doing what they believed was good and right. The film presented both sides with compassion, but had to end in tragedy.
For the most part, I enjoyed the complex themes, but one respect in which I was not so impressed with this movie was the treatment of the topic of love. This film does an excellent job of pointing out how no one in movies respond rationally to falling in love (or for that matter, seeing someone in the street and finding them attractive). In this movie, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine all fall in love. Cosette and Marius lose 30 IQ points and can't help but obsess over each other after glancing at each other for less than 10 seconds on the street, and Eponine, who at least developed a love for Marius over some time, practically commits suicide when finding out he does not love her in return. The film wouldn't have worked without this wild turkey love triangle, and perhaps it is trying to be historically accurate, but I am still very disgusted by how films glamorize romance to the point of making it one's life meaning. If we wonder why 13-year-old girls throw themselves at any boy they meet, perhaps we should consider the fact that they are being exposed to fairy tale culture like this, which still pushes the idea that a woman's only function in life is to find a mate.
I found Les Misérables to be an incredibly cultured and very engaging film, and I highly recommend it. However I wish this film, like many others, would be more level-headed when it comes to portrayals of love and romance for the good of our society.
...oh, and one last thing: why did a movie about France all have characters with British accents?